Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Cover that Drifted Away

Flying Alinga Flaming Ring, 2009,
smoke on paper, 60x40 inches

Two summers ago, I met an artist who paints circus scenes with smoke. Beautiful, haunting, dream-like. Rob Tarbell and I were both in residence at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a farm in the mountains near Lynchburg where folks provided us and two dozen other artists with three squares a day, a comfortable dorm room, and a studio in a barn. “Knock yourselves out,” they told us. “Make art.”

Rob made his while protected by a hazmat suit. Like some bio-terrorism researcher, he’d step inside a tent-like contraption of shiny plastic and ductwork, and he’d affix a canvas overhead. In his hand was a stick, and clipped to the end of the stick was a photo negative or a credit card or some other material full of toxic chemicals. When he touched flame to the fuel, acrid, potent, deadly smoke rose to stain the canvas. A whiff was all it took. Any more and the canvas would start to look like the inside of a chimney.

When I first saw Rob’s art, The Greatest Show didn’t yet have a publisher. But already I envisioned his work on the cover. I asked, he said yes.

He calls the series of circus paintings, “Smoke Rings.” I love how he compares what he does with smoke to what animal trainers do with animals. Both take advantage of the natural tendencies of their subjects to have them do something unnatural. A horse will rear up on its back legs; but only a trainer can teach it to stay up there, balance, and then walk. Rob lets the smoke rise and stain, but he directs it to make pictures, something it wouldn’t ever do without him.

So, yeah. I was smitten. I still am.

But a cover isn’t art alone. It’s also marketing. Months after I met Rob, I read a New York Times piece about book-cover designs that publishers had rejected. Among the reasons, the Times informed me, were that some covers were too light. “White covers,” the story read, “don’t look good on Amazon.”

And I recalled those white backgrounds behind the smoky zebras.

Nevertheless, when my editor at LSU asked whether I had ideas for a cover I forwarded Rob’s work. “They are pretty cool illustrations,” I heard back, “and rather timeless and dreamy-looking—but not very colorful.”

So instead, LSU’s design editor created the beautiful, striking, haunting cover, which is art and also visible on Amazon, and more wondrous than I could have dreamed.

Still, I want people to see Rob’s smoke paintings and their ambiguous, otherworldly tension between childhood fantasies and danger, images that sear my Greatest Show self.

Alinga Trio with Anna Karma Fala, 2009, smoke on paper, 30x44 inches


Leslie F. Miller said...

Did you buy it? It's awesome. Buy it.

Michael Downs said...

I should. But they're, um, expensive. And I'm a college prof. At a state school.

Also, I think he's sold a lot of them already. God bless the people with money who buy them.

Elizabeth Harris said...

Your cover's cool. These illustrations are wonderful, too. I bet they would have looked fine on Amazon, but what you have is just great.

Steve Yates said...

Michael, Great look behind the curtain, "the making of" your book. And, as a publisher, I'm relieved that you are at peace with an original conception that became something new and different. Watching all our designers create the Fall-Winter 2012-2013 covers (due 3.1), I'm always awed. Onward!