I popped into the Richmond library the other day. I only had 6 minutes, thought I’d just check it out. But the front door walks right into the kids’ section. So I walked out with a handful of the kind of books you pick when you have 6 minutes: ones with art you like. And two of the books in that handful were by Arthur Geisert. They were Hogwash and Lights Out.
Arthur Geisert is an engraver. He grew up in LA, trained as a sculptor, and switched to printing when he moved to rural Illinois. Since 1984, he has printed and published about a book a year. Aside from the books co-made with his wife Bonnie, his books are always wordless and his characters are always pigs. As of sometime in the middle of the past decade, he moved to Iowa and now lives and works in an old 900 sq. ft. building, formerly a bank.
Hogwash and Lights Out are similar. Both about pigs. Both stories told without words. Both winding the reader through a mechanical system that solves a problem. In Hogwash, it’s a giant system of washing and drying machines that take young pigs and clean them up for their parents. In Lights Out, it’s an extremely complicated Rube Goldberg machine that pulls a light switch for a child who’s afraid to go to bed in the dark. And both stories provide a frolic through an altogether unassuming and creative world.
I have yet to read Geisert’s other works. I imagine they are similarly simple. And similarly similar. And I look forward to them. Because stories told without words hold a uniquely quiet place in the world. A space for your brain to weave itself through a story without words pulling it by the hand. At first glance, it seems childish, maybe primitive, because words can convey more complexity than silence. But it would be a trap to feel beholden to the exactness of words. Stories do not have to be exact. They simply need to lead a reader somewhere new. And using only pictures and suggestion to do so is a skill. A brave author will let go of some control of their story and give it to their reader. Act as a torch through an unknown forest, but not a clear path.
I wouldn’t necessarily call Geisert brave in that way. These stories don’t provide much room for reader creativity. As the title of his other book, Pigs From A to Z, suggests, he progresses from a beginning to an end. Rather mechanically. That is no comment on his artistic talent, which is irrefutable. Rather a nod at another sort of talent. His stories are not only lively and engaging, but his prints also bely a man who is committed to doing something well. And thoroughly. He describes his printing process in detail in an interview here, from May, 4th 2001 on teachingbooks.net. He also describes his daily life in this beautiful way:
“Emmy Lou’s is a local café where we have breakfast at 5:30. The same people have been doing this for a number of years, and we all sit at the same places, and we all say the same things. We all wear the same stuff. The jokes are the same, year after year. We do discuss contemporary happenings, but these comments are superfluous to the rhythm of daily life.
And after that, the grocery store opens at six. We go get groceries. And then we come home and put the groceries away. We find all this very interesting… Then we get to work.”
It says worlds…