On Thursday (April 12, 2012), I flew to Baltimore, MD to attend the building dedication ceremony for The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Tower of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Last year, as one of the 70 artists invited to create over 500 new works of art for both buildings, I was asked to choose two books from a list of cherished children’s stories and make a series of positive and uplifting photographs inspired by them. I selected Stuart Little by E.B. White and Norton Juster’s 50-year-old classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. Basing artwork on children’s literature is part of The Johns Hopkins Books + Healing initiative and sings of their committed relationship with the national REACH OUT AND READ program.
The first step was to submit my initial ideas (I’ve included a few below) for review and approval (3 for Stuart Little and 6 for The Phantom Tollbooth). For Stuart Little, I found a copy that looked as if it had been read and loved by countless children and expanded upon the original page illustrations. For The Phantom Tollbooth, I brought 6 of the book’s many personified idioms to life by crafting the characters from the surfaces of other books and ephemera that spoke of their essence. For example, Spelling Bee appears to emerge and hover above a spelling dictionary while the Mathemagician stands atop a tower of flashcards, with a confident art raised skyward as if to say, “A solution to any problem can be found.”
Shortly after my proposal was approved, I received a call from the curator, Nancy Rosen (Nancy Rosen Incorporated, NY) asking if she could ‘talk me into’ creating six additional images for another book. She didn’t have to because I accepted immediately. The book was Hoops – a young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers (who, incidentally, was named the ambassador of young people’s literature this year.)
I read the book and after finishing it I panicked. This is a rather dark story of inner city African American teens who must look beyond a stereotypical future of illegal behavior in order to see the bright and attainable one. Weeks went by as I tried to imagine a positive way to picture this. I was mentally paralyzed. I made a few feeble attempts at trying to cull something from the content and was, thankfully, asked to try again. More time passed before I picked the book up and read it again. Then, I read it again and wound with a book that was riddled with highlighted passages and notes scrawled within the margins. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day it hit me: the characters in the book have qualities that ultimately lift them above (or drag them away from) failure. One blue-lined passage started it all:
In my mind, I pictured Cal as a middle-aged man in sweats, looking a bit ‘prosperous’ (to quote my step-father!) and holding a basketball. That visualization along with those words lead to my third attempt:
I was pretty sure that I’d nailed it. A few days later, while speaking with Michael Foley, I learned that I had not nailed it—I KNOCKED IT OUT OF THE PARK’! First hurdle cleared!
Second hurdle: choose 5 more passages and 5 more characters. For that, I must give credit to the staff at Nancy Rosen Incorporated (they were for more patient with me than I deserved!!!) for helping me choose the best quotes from the list I’d compiled. From there, five more silhouettes were prepared that exemplified each character’s personality. The shape of a basketball appears with each player – a talisman of hope touches each of them in a different way. Mary-Ann was the most challenging because I knew that she had to look confident and headstrong while projecting femininity without promiscuity. Once complete, I lined them up. It was all good:
Cutting the text into the silhouettes—letter-by-letter—came next. There were no overlays or pencil lines to guide me. I simply ‘eyeballed’ the shapes to determine where each of the words should fall. I had a few extra copies of the book on-hand in case I made mistakes and had to start over. Remarkably, that only happened once. Three days (and a blister on my left, middle finger) later, I was finished:
Up until now, nothing had been photographed. Part of the reason was that Fuji discontinued production of T64 – a tungsten-balanced, transparency sheet film (4×5) that I used exclusively and I was not about to settle for anything else. I did some research and found a solution: Fotodiox. This inexpensive beauty allowed me to mount my Nikon D300 directly to the back of my Cambo Legend view camera. The sliding/rotating back gave me the ability to make 4-8 overlapping exposures that could then be ‘stitched’ together in Photoshop to make one very large, high resolution exposure. I’d found the best of both worlds (for now): digital imaging with full view camera movements:
Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as I just made it sound. There were a number of technical and mechanical problems that I had to solve (keeping that to myself) before things worked smoothly, but after a week, I had all of the files ready and uploaded for printing. By the time I received word that the prints were ready, I had a crate built, lined and ready for shipping to New York:
Fast forward to last week.
I feel very fortunate to have been part of this project and seeing the work on the walls was definitely a career highlight. In the car on the way to the dedication ceremony, Michael Foley and I came to a decision: these images will NOT be made available to a larger audience. An additional set of The Phantom Tollbooth was printed for Nancy Rosen to be gifted to the foundation that funded the project. At some point, I will print a complete set for myself and that will be it. I was compensated very well by The Johns Hopkins and don’t feel that I should continue to capitalize on that generosity or ,to quote a line from Hoops, “Sell my game.”
Below are the images as I saw them installed. If I recall correctly, The Phantom Tollbooth is on the 1oth floor, Hoops is on the 9th floor and Stuart Little is on the 4th floor:
And finally (rollover and pause on each image to reveal the title):
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH—