My landlord moved out about 8 months ago. In getting rid of his unwanted stuff, he offered me an old dictionary, it didn’t even have a binding. “I’m going to throw it away, otherwise,” he said, “but I thought you might like it.” The implication is that geeks and writers like dictionaries, and how could I not love receiving a dictionary. I reluctantly accepted the gift, not having a clue as to what I would do with it. I thought I’d do him the favor of taking it off his hands so that he could get on with his moving, and then secretly trash it at some point.
Besides, people like to give things to other people, especially when it acknowledges that they know a bit about you (“writer” and “dictionary”), it makes them feel good, so I didn’t refuse.
This dictionary is old school, and, as the binding and frontispiece information are missing, I don’t know the publication date. I’m guessing the 1930’s, maybe even 1920’s. It’s almost like an encyclopedia. Weighs no less than 15 pounds, the pages are delightfully fragile and yellowed and tattered. The main body is the dictionary, and the back pages are a trove of those small, detailed antique botanical, zoological, and entomological illustrations. I wonder: who created these unsigned illustrations, artists without a name, selling their meticulous skill without recognition or glory? And who transcribed the illustrations for printing, what hands made sure that these images were properly detailed onto a plate — I assume — for the printing press? Hundreds and hundreds of small illustrations of flora, fauna, animals, fish, insects, butterflies, bats, as much of the natural world as the editors could stuff into a dictionary, given their publication restrictions.
There are also world and U.S. history graphs and charts galore, and tens and tens of pages of historical illustrations and maps, all printed in those beautiful antique fonts and in the stark simplicity of black on yellowed white.
I received this gift before I undertook my art journals, and hadn’t a clue that I would be doing them with pleasure and perseverance. This morning, while puttering between writing and Facebook and feeling sorry for myself because of the mountain of stuff that I seem always to take on, I was thinking about an art journal page that I was working on. It needed something — well, it needed more than something — but I had to take the next step. I had already gessoed over the first attempt, which was an epic disaster. There sat the page, a mess of gesso covered failure, a haunting metaphor for my life if I didn’t do something to the page.
The dictionary. Stuffed in the corner of the front bedroom, the answer came to me from nowhere, “the dictionary.” All these illustrations and maps and graphs and words waiting for me to cut-up, embellish with indigo blue gouache, splatter with black acrylic, line with magenta and pine green washi tape, etch with white watercolor crayon, and layer with the soft velvet of oil pastels. All this stuff waiting for me to lovingly exploit, reworking it into something that makes my day centered, and more hopeful for creating beauty from waste.
The page that was a horrific failure became something better than myself, for it encompassed giving, receiving, and creatively using what might have otherwise been put into the dumpster, without its value being recognized.
And now, someone else’s art silently lives on, having traveled down time’s stream in an old dictionary, and into my art journal.
Today’s random thought.