As snow settles in for the season, the Norman Rockwell Museum taps into the arctic creations of an artist continuing in the tradition of America’s best illustrators.
“Gregory Manchess: Above the Timberline,” focuses on the artist and author’s first fully illustrated novel, a classic adventure story that takes place in a futuristic world in which it has snowed continuously for the past 1,500 years. Told through both written narrative and 123 oil paintings, the book follows Wesley Singleton as he searches for his father, Galen, a famed polar explorer.
The book is filled with polar bears, rhino-like creatures and steampunk-esque adventure scenes, for which Manchess recently earned best fantasy artist at the 2018 World Fantasy Awards. Though it’s hardly the first accolade Manchess has received, the artist said he’s honored to hold that title and be recognized by the fantasy community.
Over the years, Manchess’ artwork has appeared in National Geographic, TIME, Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian and other publications. Most recently, he worked with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen on their latest Netflix film series “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” slated to be released this week.
Like Rockwell and Golden Age artists such as Frank Schoonover, Manchess doesn’t spend much time standing still. The exhibition reflects that, bringing together 30 paintings from the book as well as props, archival materials and behind-the-scenes videos, along with a large sculpture of a polar bear named Grim created by Dan Chudzinski.
The artist and author talked recently about how “Above the Timberline” came together, and what it was like working with the Coen brothers.
Q: How did you get started as an artist?
A: As a kid, I was always drawing. I was the kid in class that was the artist. There were a few of us, but I stayed with it. But I didn’t know it was going to become a career until as a late teenager I decided that maybe I should give it a go. I was considering writing and going into film, but I discovered that they had film at the art school I went to so I did some of that as well. I decided I was going to shoot for being an artist and if that didn’t work out, I’d have to be a pilot or an astronaut or something. One of those run-of-the-mill astronaut careers.
Q: How did “Above the Timberline” come together? It sounds like it combines one of your early dreams of writing with your artwork.
A: I’d been writing all my life, but never got anything published. I wrote children’s book stories and poetry and all that, but my focus was on the art. It takes a long time to mature as an artist, much to people’s chagrin. People don’t want to believe that. Writers take a long time to mature, but we always think it’s talent, we think it’s some kind of magical gift and it really isn’t, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the training. So I spent a lot more time training in art than I did in writing, but it was always there. I’ve kept a journal for 40 years.
But [as far as] “Timberline,” the [title] painting was done for a film about how I work. I did not know 24 hours before the film crew showed up what the heck I was going to do. I wanted something [adventurous], and basically I came up with a guy going up a mountain with polar bear pack animals. It seemed to touch a nerve, and everybody wanted to know more about this character and why the heck he was on this mountain and why he was being followed by five polar bears with packs on. From there, I almost tried to get it out of my mind because I always knew how hard it was going to be to get something published. But people I started to show it to from a publishing perspective were wowed by it. So I started writing, but not just sitting down to write. I was doing thumbnail sketches to put it together visually first. It allowed me to explore a story line because it had to work visually. I would sketch a number of sequences and then write about them. I ended up writing a 300-page novel and then going in and cutting it all apart to just get to the essence.
Q: How did you come up with the setting for this book?
A: It has a little bit to do with the paint itself. Painting with white is luscious. It’s very fun and it’s tactile. Under different lighting conditions, the white can be any number of colors, from something very dark to something very bright. I [also] just love snow and I didn’t get enough of it when I was a kid. I thought, if it’s going to snow at all, it’s going to snow a lot.
Q: When you were creating [“Above the Timberline”] did you find the writing portion more difficult [than the art]?
A: I hadn’t written as much as I had painted and drawn. It [was] important to spend more time on the drawing and painting because it was going to take a lot more time than learning how to structure sentences -- I know the writers would probably find fault with that statement. The thing was, it was a rough start, much like a sketch. Think of an artist putting down lines and trying to figure out what’s going on until they build up the composition. Things change constantly and they’re rough and ambiguous, and that was the writing as well. But a friend of mine said "All good writing is rewriting," so my patience level increased [because of that]. Then I went into the zero draft, whereas you just get everything out. It doesn’t matter how good or bad [it is], nothing needs to make sense, it just needs to come out. I thought that was a great technique so I tried to do that a lot and stay patient with myself. Out of this zero draft, I could get an idea of scenes, situations and [characters]. There was never a time when it wasn’t any fun. That fascinated me because it was not a chore. I always looked forward to working on it because it was completely and utterly my own thing. [But] like anything else, you don’t create in a vacuum, so I had friends and beta readers telling me things like "More bears." Along the way, the story can splinter off into so many directions, so the real chore was to keep on task of where it was going.
Q: Tell me about how the exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum plays into the book and your process of making it.
A: I visited the Rockwell Museum in 1979, because I had learned that you could tour Norman Rockwell’s house and I thought as a budding illustrator I absolutely [had] to do that, plus I loved his work. [The exhibit] has 30 out of the 124 paintings that are involved in the book. It’s kind of a small fraction, but [they’re] important moments from the story. I did all those paintings in 11 months. I was flying. It was a test of my own character. The first three months of painting, I cranked through 49 major paintings. But it took me 48 years of training to be able to do that.
Q: What do you hope people get from the exhibition, either about about “Timberline" or your work?
A: Paintings and words can go together for adult literature and not just kids' literature. It also opens up worlds for children to experience. The visual experience has been left behind in adult literature, and I think quite adamantly that it’s time to return to that, because there’s a lot that can be said in visual storytelling so quickly, much faster than words at times.
Q: Talk about your involvement in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."
A: I had worked with an art director [Eric Skillman] at The Criterion Collection, and Eric and I worked together on covers for a lot of different films. So the Coen brothers had this idea to do a mocked-up version of an old book in the film. It’s the conceit or the angle they use in the film to tell the stories. They wanted it to look like an old illustrated volume that you might find in an old bookstore, no dust jacket, just the embossed cover. The [Coen brothers] called [Criterion] and they asked, "Who could we go to to get this done?" Eric said, "I think I know the guy you need." He contacted me and said, "Do you want to work with the Coen brothers?" I said, "Yeah, I think that would be fun." Right after that, I found myself in their office. In the end, I got to do all the sketches for the chapters in the book as well and the endpapers. I also got to do the embossed cover sketch. When you see the film, my artwork is on the very first frame. So it was fun.
Q: And you got to work directly with [the Coen brothers]?
A: Yeah, I hadn’t realized when I was working with them that they were also in the same work mode that I was in. When I went to the screening, I spoke to them afterward. They were so much softer. They were laughing and we were having a great time, and I realized, "Oh, when they’re working on the film, they’re focused. That’s everything to them." It’s the same way I am for my paintings. Once the film was done they could relax.
Q: You mentioned that you’re working on another book. Besides that, what’s up next?
A: Well, I have [six] U.S. postage stamps coming out next year. I’m working on a show for a gallery in Paris of very large-scale work on scenes from “Timberline” and scenes from my next book, and paintings based on classic novels. There’s been a little film interest in “Timberline,” and I’m hoping to get that pushed along next year. Also, there’s some gaming interest. So the idea stretches in multiple ways from the book. The next book, like I mentioned, is completely different. Different weather, more mountainous, but summertime.
Manchess will be at the Norman Rockwell Museum from 1 to 2 p.m. Sunday to give a talk about "Above the Timberline." He'll also be available to sign copies of the book. The exhibition “Gregory Manchess: Above the Timberline” will be open until Feb. 24. For information, visit nrm.org.