Hybrids. Grotesques. Chimeras. Today I’m thinking about the drawings of Eduardo Galeano in The Book of Embraces. Have you read this book? I love it—its playfulness and seriousness, its range, its voices, and its visions. It celebrates art, imagination, and the human spirit through beautiful vignettes and whimsical illustrations such as a man with an octopus for a head holding a hula hoop, a pensive donkey wearing a suit and spectacles, a fish carrying an umbrella. These images were the catalyst of my MFA critical thesis, “Seeing in Embraces,” which was published by Assay Journal this month. Check it out to learn more about The Book of Embraces.
I’ve used the illustrations in The Book of Embraces as prompts in creative writing classes, and it’s always gone well. I keep it really simple, just ask everyone to choose an image and write from it. I write too, and I always find that the image catapults me into the middle of something interesting. I write something I had no intention of writing, follow a trail of associations I’d had no idea was there. I love the surprise and the weightlessness of having jumped the fences of the self.
These hybrids had been such great springboards for writing that I thought I’d apply them to drawing. I grabbed my journal and some pens, walked to Java Shack, ordered an Iced Tea, and sat down at a table to draw some hybrids of my own. There was a dog with a flower for a head and a plastic cup with a parking-meter-straw. But it was not going well. My hybrids lacked the vitality and poetry of Galeano’s creations. I imagined Galeano’s combinations came from intuition, intention, or spontaneous play. Mine felt forced. And my drawing style seemed ill suited to the depiction of wild hybrid creations. In my article, I say that Galeano’s style doesn’t strive for verisimilitude. But as I looked at my own drawings, I realized that Galeano’s illustrations project a certain authority nonetheless. Maybe it’s the authority of his draftsmanship or of a style reminiscent of 19th century news sources, pre-photographs. At any rate, my hybrids lay flat on the page like the drawings they were while Galeano’s creations inhabit the page.
A few days later I tried again. A face from a magazine sprouted a stem. The stem sprouted a leaf that required another leaf, which would require another stem. Was I going to do this? It looked nothing like a Galeano hybrid, sharp and self-contained. Should I turn the page and try again?
When I was an art major at the University of Illinois, I heard a piece of advice I often think of: sometimes you should see a piece through even if it doesn’t seem promising. So that’s what I did, and eventually I fell into the zone—an hour passed like a minute. That’s another kind of fence jumping. But in this case I didn’t escape myself but rather came home to myself in a hybrid done my own way, in my own style.
This makes me wonder: Do we ever really escape the self? When we say we’ve escaped it, maybe we’ve actually enlarged it or discovered it to be something different from what we thought it was or just done something outside our usual habits. Maybe it’s a particular sense of the self we escape, and not the self itself.