Macaulay in Montpelier Explained
Original drawings for eight of David Macaulay’s publications hang in the Spotlight Gallery until November 2. Macaulay dubs himself an “explainer.” He offered these words about each of the books.
Having lived in southern New England since 1962, I finally became curious about all the mills and mill towns and villages I’d been driving past for much of that time. I then did what I always do when this kind of thing happens. I started taking pictures, finding books on the subject, and introducing myself to experts who might be able and willing to help. Fortunately, I haven’t met an expert yet who was unwilling to guide me through their unfamiliar but intriguing territory. The story in the book traces the evolution of mill architecture and engineering through an imaginary 19th-century Rhode Island community.
Written by Robert Ornstein and Richard Thompson, “The Amazing Brain” was my first opportunity to develop some understanding of how the human body works. The project began as an article for a magazine called Human Nature, which is edited by Ornstein. The idea, proposed by a neurosurgeon named Joseph Bogen, was to build a gigantic human brain through which neurosurgeons-in-training could wander to get a better overall understanding of the complex structure and anatomy. My job was to make a few drawings to help the average educated reader understand what they were looking at while also marveling at the imposing scale. It was one of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever taken on and even had me in the morgue of a local teaching hospital cutting up a brain.
As well as making countless diagrams for the book that followed, I proposed making three self-contained portfolios that would break up the sizeable text. I wrote my own text for each of these restorative interlopers.
In this delightful “Soylent Green”-influenced and not-so-subtle allegory, a flock of sheep wander into an abandoned town looking for food. They soon discover many of the pleasures presumably enjoyed by the original inhabitants and in so doing reveal what may very well have happened to them. The structure of the story was written one night in a Washington, D.C. hotel room. Apocalyptic visions of the world had been in my head ever since Ronald Reagan had been elected. I was imagining a series of drawings of famous places always shown filled with lots of people, now desolate except for the occasional paper bag or newspaper.
I grabbed one of those little hotel pads for jotting down phone numbers or some such thing. I think I was probably just venting, but in the end had a story that Judith Viorst in her New York Times review said she would “never give to a child she loved.” It’s a good thing it wasn’t published by the children’s book department at Houghton Mifflin, but instead by the grownups.
All the drawings were done in pen and ink and gray permanent markers with occasional white pencil crayon highlights. The pinkish areas that gradually appeared in these drawings suggest that the term “permanent” was applied somewhat casually to the marker labels, or perhaps just hopefully.
This book was created in the middle of “The Way Things Work” — a four-year project — as a little vacation from 400 pages of machines. It was mostly for fun, but I can’t help myself. If there’s a way of making a book more complicated than it needs to be, I’ll find it. I wanted this book to have flat color like an animated film and decided to try and paint these illustrations like animation cells.
If I was doing this book today I’d use the computer to drop perfectly flat color over the line-work, but back then I tried a variety of traditional materials from pastel, crayon, and water color before finally settling on Plaka, a flat opaque paint ideal for painting cuckoo clocks. Close enough!
I began working on this book in 1984. It was my first real group project and on an unprecedented scale. It remains the largest book I have ever worked on and by far the most successful. The irony is that when first invited to join the team, I declined. It just sounded overwhelming and potentially dull. I also felt I should probably be developing my own words as well as pictures instead. Thankfully, a year or so later I was asked once again and this time I agreed. I was soon trying to figure out how to make the task less onerous and if possible, playful.
The art was all done on real (expensive) paper after making countless detailed sketches each of which was checked and double-checked by the book’s brilliant writer, Neil Ardley. I drew with a dip pen and a bottle of India ink for maximum authenticity – whatever that is – and then added either sepia ink or paint. Because of the cost of printing a 400-page book in 1988, only every other spread could be in four colors. The ones in between were limited to two. One of the many challenges was taking advantage of the full-color option while trying to avoid a jarring contrast with each turn of the page.
A few days after 9/11 and still in shock, I called my publisher and suggested postponing what I was working on (“The Way We Work”) and replacing it with a book about the building of a mosque to join “Cathedral” on the Macaulay architecture shelf. He agreed and I was off.
Two years earlier I’d spent time in Istanbul and Cairo filming the PBS series “Building Big” and was still enjoying fond memories of the people and places we’d visited. I felt compelled to tell a story about human achievement that would perhaps balance at least a little the story of horrendous destruction we were all slowly recovering from.
This was the most difficult book I have ever worked on — I plan to keep it that way. Following one’s own curiosity is risky, ask any cat, but when setting out to learn all I could about how I actually work, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Even with the help of experts and eventually a co-writer, the adventure gobbled up almost seven years and a huge amount of creative energy. Although it’s well behind me, I still have mixed feelings about the decision. I probably should just have rented “Fantastic Voyage,” binge-watched it for a week, and moved on. Still. There is no use crying over spilt milk, ask any cat, and I do carry a certain pride in having learned a lot and surviving the process. Making these drawings was intimidating to say the least.
There is so much rich material out there, and so many exquisite illustrations, it was hard to imagine how I could add to it in a meaningful way. But after the first few years there was no turning back. I was in too deep to abandon my quest. The only solution was to take the information I was slowly learning and try to have a little fun with it, initially for my own sanity, but also for a future reader’s pleasure.
In 2008, my publisher asked if I would be willing to let them create full-color versions of the black-and-white books “Cathedral” and “Castle.” They wanted to publish them as a single volume called “Built to Last.” The new edition would also include “Mosque” which was already in full color. To win me over they offered to have a third party colorize both books on the computer. Once I stopped vomiting over visions of muddy color applied over heavy crosshatching (a technique generally employed – and always to better effect – when color isn’t an option), I declined their invitation.
Unfortunately, during my longest moments of solitary confinement in the studio, I have to admit having wondered from time to time what those old chestnuts might look like in color, particularly after completing “Mosque.” I soon decided this was more of an opportunity than an affront and offered to take on the project, but only if I could redraw all the art from scratch and improve on the accuracy of the text where appropriate.