Friday, August 21, 2015

Michael McCurdy

"You just shook the hand that shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Wordie."
"Who's that?"
"He was with Shackleton."

With that, I was introduced to Michael McCurdy, an artist whose work you have probably seen time and again, especially if you're an avid reader, but whose name, like that of many commercial illustrators, remains obscure in some corner of an etching.

Our paths crossed in a manner that was familiar during my Berkshire years, where people of artistic accomplishment and those, such as myself, of less artistic vocations lived together in the quiet and bucolic town of Great Barrington.  This was in the days just before the flood of New York-based weekenders invaded; the days before artificially inflated real estate prices, before the need for seven sushi restaurants in a town of 7000, before the traffic jams and sour tempers.

As I was still a faculty member and not yet a school administrator, I had summers that were organized around fishing, hiking, and an awful lot of reading.  With that loosely structured schedule, it was not uncommon for me to stop by Arlo Guthrie's place, as we were neighbors, to look at what he had done to transform an old Episcopal parish into a music library and performance venue, to give a ride to the 20th century's most seminal news photographer, to nod at Hugh Downs as we bought newspapers on Main Street, and to have Don Westlake detail the plot of his latest "Dortmunder" novel while seated next to me at a restaurant.  [Yes, I'm a name-dropper.]

Meeting Michael was even easier, as he was a member of my wife's parish choir and I would see him at coffee hour on those stray Sundays when I wasn't substituting for a vacationing rector or vicar.  As noted above, our first meeting came after my wife had made reference in a sermon to my habit that particularly hot and humid summer of reading tales of Arctic and Antarctic exploration.  Although an obscure interest, I found an academic colleague in McCurdy, who was researching what would become the one children's book that he both wrote and illustrated, Trapped By The Ice, the story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated, yet ultimately remarkable and stirring, voyage to the South Pole.

During the course of that and many other seasons, Michael would introduce me to his long and accomplished history of work and art.  McCurdy lived in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town with a barn that had been transformed into his studio [a video of which is found below from when he was visited by Martha Stewart as part of her eponymous TV show].  He still had, on one of the shelves, the toy printing press, a childhood gift of his parents, that had ignited his interest in what would become his life's work.

Martha Stewart takes us into illustrator Michael McCurdy's studio to learn about his process of making woodblock print illustrations.

It should be no surprise, I suppose, that he was interested in the people of a former age, as he always seemed to me more of a man of the earlier part of the century.  Born into comfort, educated by the best of private schools, a prep school art teacher for a time, and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he and his family repaired to the Berkshires where the children could be raised in peace and he could build not only his artistic reputation, but a publishing concern that would match art and verse with works both contemporary and classical.  Once, while at a particularly stunted house party, when the conversations were halting and awkward, Michael simply sat at his host's piano and began to play a variety of music, from common to classical, that resulted in people unwittingly singing from the Episcopal Church's hymnal [the 1940 edition, too].

As with any artist, we could prattle on about him, but displaying a sample of his creations would be more interesting [click to enlarge, please]:

While the woodcuts are his best-known medium, I've always been partial to those watercolors that illustrated his children's book about Shackleton, as that simple volume was the result of many, many of our conversations and some interesting and fun correspondence with the survivors of the survivors of the expedition.

McCurdy's collected works may now be found mostly in the archives of the Boston Public Library; illustrations and broadsheets from his publishing company are housed at the University of Connecticut's Dowd Research Center.  Many of the works that he illustrated are in print, still, and can be found in bookstores both on-line and physical, particularly The Bookloft in Great Barrington, which has always been partial to local writers and artists.

Around the time our family left the Berkshires for the Litchfield Hills, Michael was diagnosed with a degenerative nervous disease that would ultimately rob him of his ability to create and to make a living. With that knowledge, to which I and others were sworn to secrecy so that he would be able to gain work until it was no longer possible, we spent a long evening at dinner in his farmhouse [with some rather good scotch, I seem to partially recall].

At one point of the evening, observing the sun setting over the mountains, he asked, "Did you ever just want to get on a road north and drive until it ends?  Just to see how far it would take you and what you would see?  I guess that's the role of the artist, isn't it?  To supply that wonder.  To take someone wistfully to another place; a place unfamiliar but within their own imagination."