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Volume 25, Number 1 — January 2018

Charles Vess leads a journey through "faerieland'

Charles Vess and friend show off his new book,
Charles Vess and friend show off his new book, "Walking Through the Landscape of Faerie."
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | November 30, 2016

The inspiration for Charles Vess' latest book, "Walking Through the Landscape of Faerie," was a mural he painted for William King Museum of Art, Abingdon, Virginia.

"Last summer, I produced an exhibition of my art for the William King Museum of Art. For that exhibit, I painted a 12 x 150 foot narrative mural that wrapped around the walls of the gallery space depicting a metaphorical journey through life using key elements from folk and fairy tale.

"Due to its size it was described by more than one visitor as being as if you had actually stepped inside my story. I did recreate the narrative, but not the scale, for the pages of this book. Across the rest of the floor space, I combined smaller artworks with certain pieces of poetry that I find to be evocative and inspiring.

"The public's response to all this was so gratifying that I began almost immediately to think of putting it into some kind of a book. Fortunately I have a good relationship with the folks that produce Faerie Magazine, and they agreed to publish it," he says.

The book contains more than Vess' illustrations and writing. Many of his frequent collaborators are part of this book. Charles de Lint, contributed the introduction. Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. le Guin, Gregory Maguire, Alice Hoffman, Delia Sherman, Terri Windling, Jane Yolen, Theodora Goss, Ari Berk, John Matthews and others added their poetry.

Vess has worked with Charles de Lint on several books including "A Circle of Cats" and "The Cats of Tanglewood Forest."

He is also a frequent collaborator with Neil Gaiman. Paramount Pictures made their graphic novel "Stardust," which includes 175 of Vess' paintings, into a major motion picture in 2007. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, the cast includes Michelle Pfieffer, Robert DeNiro and Claire Danes. The film appears on several top fantasy film lists.

Other Gaiman/Vess projects include "Blueberry Girl" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Sandman #19 for which they won the World Fantasy Best Short Story award.

Vess has won the World Fantasy Artist of the Year three times. A few of his other awards include the Ink Pot Award for excellence in comic art, Eisner Awards, Comic Creators' Guild and Silver Award among others.

While much of Vess' work is solo work, he does enjoy the collaborative process.

"When the collaboration works, that is, when both parties check their egos at the door, it is a blissful experience that can produce a piece of work or a book that neither party could ever have done by themselves alone," he says.

As is customary for Vess, he is working on several projects, including another collaboration — this one with Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin's "Earthsea" novels are being reissued in 2018 for their 50th anniversary. Vess is illustrating the new edition.

"I currently have three illustrated book projects burning a hole on my drawing table as well as two separate collections of previously published material. The first and most certainly the most challenging is a collection of all six of Ursula K. Le Guin's "Earthsea' books, the first time that they've all been collected under one cover. I read the first of these novels not long after it was published and have eagerly followed each successive novel ever since, watching her writing grow richer and her themes deeper. So I'm very excited (and intimidated) about being a part of the project.

"Ursula is now 87 years old and has written many books. For those who are not familiar with her work, she's won numerous awards, and just a few years ago the National Book Association presented her with a medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Literature. Going into this project, as I said earlier, I was intimidated by the prospect of trying to crawl into her brain and draw what she sees there. But she has proved to be a delightful and very perceptive collaborator on the project.

"Then there is a children's picture book, "Driftwood Days' that I've been slowly pulling together over several long years, as well as a collection of newly written fairy tales, "Honeycomb' by Joanne Harris, that I'm eager to begin drawing for," he says.

Vess is probably best known in the region for his development of the bronze statue of Titania, the "Queen of the Fairies" from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is across from Barter Theatre in downtown Abingdon.

Vess has always drawn and written stories. He says he loves to combine both art and text and watch what happens in the liminal space between the two. "There are few joys greater to me than the feel of my pencil running across a sheet of paper and watching the ideas that appear there," he says.

He says he is inspired by a walk in the woods, viewing an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, an illustrated book by Arthur Rackham or John Bauer, and his wife's smile.

Vess graduated with a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and worked in commercial animation for Candy Apple Productions in Richmond, Virginia, before moving to New York City in 1976. It was there that he became a freelance illustrator, working for many publications, including Heavy Metal, Klutz Press, Epic Comics and National Lampoon.

His award-winning work has graced the covers and interior pages of many comic book publishers including Marvel ("Spider-Man," "Raven Banner") and DC ("Books of Magic," "Swamp Thing," "Sandman"). His work is also found in book illustration, such as "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," "Coyote Road Trickster Tales" and "Peter Pan."

His art has been featured in several gallery and museum exhibitions across the nation including two exhibitions in New York City: "Modern Fairy Tales" with Michael Kaluta at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and "Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art" at the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators. In Europe he has shown in Paris, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the United Kingdom.

His newest book is available in early December at Zazzy'Z Coffee House and Roastery, Abingdon, Virginia, as well as Mountain Empire Comics in Bristol, Tennessee.

After all these accomplishments and accolades, Vess says that one of the highlights of his life is "sitting in my yard with a cat sleeping on my lap."

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Topics: Literature



"Blossoms and Blooms" from "Walking Through the Landscape of Faerie" features the artwork of Charles Vess and local poet David Winship