On Visual Interpretation

by Laughing Stock on October 18, 2009

The whimsical drawings that accompany many of the poems in the recent issues of OnEarth Magazine, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), were done by Blair Thornley, an outstanding Laughing Stock illustrator and animator. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Dwell Magazine and many other national publications. Here are a few of the selections with Blair’s commentary about the challenges of visual interpretation (reprinted by gracious permission of OnEarth and the poets Eamon Grennan and Robert Bly.)

“I would have assumed that coming up with an image for a poem, so seemingly open ended and potentially interpretive, would be easier than for a standard magazine article, but it really isn’t. Some have been easier than others, like the chickadee one was fun and instant, just the idea of that delicate thing dealing with the cold. Still, you have to read through a few times and interpret the context for yourself, or even choose one part, there is so much going on in the poetry, which is very beautiful, but the writer’s art is verbal, not always visual” ~Blair Thornley

Chickadees in October

by Eamon Grennan ~ Fall 2008

First tussle of your lungs again
with cold weather, nose dried
from steam heat, sour of blood
in the mouth. Then the life-squeaks
so many desperate hungers
signaling some unspeakable hope of
these chickadees at the feeder,
though none becomes a Buddha,
being but scraps of act and clamour,
quick, black, white, open and shut
assemblages of feather and bone
blinking the big dread away
with the sunflower’s sweet kernel, brisk half-minute of the millet’s bittersweet.

“Gravity” was very tricky, I was stumped. I tried being literal, wrapping a figure in leaves on the earth like it was a personified apple. How do you make a stone on the ground look interesting? what the heck was this poem about? How can I draw an image of the roots of laughter? Finally I just focused on gravity, and did an abstract figure heaving into the ground. The figure has to look abstract if you’re going to put him through something like that, otherwise it’s too upsetting on a magazine page. I am glad that the art director choose this as the solution. I could have gone off the deep end here. ~Blair Thornley


by Robert Bly ~ Spring 2009

Grief lies close to the roots of laughter.
Both love the cabin open to the traveler,
The ocean apple wrapped in its own leaves.
How can I be close to you if I’m not sad?
The animal pads where no one walks.
There is a gladness in the not-caring
Of the bear’s cabin; and in the gravity
That makes the stone laugh down the

A few more of Blair’s illustrations and her commentary about resolving the visual challenges posed by the assignments :

“The biggest challenge for all of these is actually the print size. It’s about the size of a postage stamp, so there’s no room for fluff. (makes you disciplined) The one about the violets was a real test. The poem suggested a whole lovely scene down by the stream, and violets are tiny. Maybe I could have done a violet by itself, but that seemed boring. I made the violets gigantic next to the girl so they would read. I guess that changing scale is sometimes the only way to solve a puzzle.” ~Blair Thornley

“For  the nuthatch poem, again it was a lot going on, I struggled with a lot of drawings of nuthatches and people, finally just did a drawing about the emotional relationship between the man and bird. ~Blair Thornley

See Blair’s portfolio at Laughing Stock.
Contact Laughing Stock to work with Blair (508-460-6058).
See more of Blair’s work for OnEarth.

Leave a Comment

Next post: