Ventriloquism : n. art of throwing one's voice so that it seems to come from some source other than the speaker. 1797, formed as a descriptive noun to ventriloquist, with substitution of the suffix -ism. The word has generally replaced the older ventriloquy. —ventriloquist n. an expert in ventriloquism. 1656, in Blount's Glossographia; formed from English ventriloquy + -ist. —ventriloquy n. ventriloquism. 1584, formed from Late Latin ventriloquus ventriloquist + English -y. Late Latin ventriloquus (Latin venter, genitive ventris, belly + loqui, speak) was patterned on Greek engastrimythos, literally, speaking in the belly.
~ from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
AND SUCH WAS THE TREASURE OF INSPIRATION I found in my beloved Etymological Dictionary, when I searched for Ventriloquism, upon learning that I was to paint the front cover for Catherynne M. Valente's wonderful forthcoming collection of short stories. Catherynne's world and mine intersect in some melancholic snow-bound medieval Slavic outpost, where freaks and outcasts, oddities and dreams wander the streets with sorcery in their pockets and an eye on another horizon. Truly her writing is exquisitely painted, and I was honoured indeed when she asked me to create the cover for this marvellous book.
She told me that it had the flavour of her other work - baroque and colorful and more than a little sad. It's full of duelling geographers, she said, dream-eating tapirs, winemakers in space, selkies, aeronauts, Venus and Mars, secret video games, a host of fairy tales, rusalka medical students...it's six years of my work, in one book. I kind of think of the whole thing like the witch's candy house in Hansel and Gretel.
Well! How could I not be inspired and delighted by all that?! And so in I delved...
I took the idea of belly-speaking from the original meaning of ventriloquism, and decided that the front of the book should show a kind of marionette figure (operating her own strings) whose body was the gingerbread house itself. From the belly of this character, from the stove of the gingerbread house/body, rises a smoke of characters from the world of these stories: Narwhals, bears, parrot-men, pickpocket pamphleteers, monks, dream-tapirs, witches, monopods, rusalki, selkies, blemmyae .... and a mystery of others.
In the sky above hang many strange planets, even a fob watch, and down below on a railway line from some eastern onion-domed city, travels a train whose track becomes a ladder to the moon. Underneath this, for the keen-eyed, is written in Cyrillic a Russian lullaby which goes like this:
Не ложися на краю.
Придёт серенький волчок,
Он ухватит за бочок
И утащит во лесок
Под ракитовый кусток.
which means something like this:
Baby, baby, rock-a-bye
On the edge you mustn't lie
Or the little grey wolf will come
And will nip you on the tum,
Tug you off into the wood
Underneath the willow-root.
and sounds something like this:
This track is Yuri's Lullaby from Ludovico Einaudi's soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago, but you might have also heard the lullaby in the masterly 1979 animation by Yuri Norstein Skaza Skazok (Tale of Tales) ...
Russian animation delights and astounds me endlessly. I collect favourites on my youtube channel here for afternoons with rain on the windowpane and cup of tea in hand, and I sit and marvel at the patience and soul that goes into these masterpieces.
Anyhow, although I learnt Russian at school, and can just about order a cup of coffee and read road signs to Vladivostok, I seem to have made one tiny mistake in the lettering... exchanging a к for a ж! This was spotted by an eagle eyed reader of Catherynne's blog and is going to bother me forever now, as it was whisked to print before I could correct it! But perhaps it'll remain a little oddity, in excellent company amongst oddities of the highest order who inhabit the wonder-filled world of Ms. Valente.
I was chuffed indeed to read her kind praise of my work too, and to hear that she feels my painting describes her world so closely.
The painting took me absolutely weeks and weeks... I got more and more involved in it and happily lost in the world of gingerbread marionettes, medieval monstrosities, sugar-spun ships, sea-dwellers, forests in the snow... Here amongst my burblings are pictures of it in its birthing, pencil and then watercolour, and the title lettering too.
"When this book arrives it will destroy you. It is going to change things. As its herald I will be spared. But you? There is no safe harbor for you."
This is the final work - do click to enlarge
AND as a last post script, I'd like to say a basketful of thanks to all of you who read my recent post and wrote such kind, encouraging and thoughtful comments and emails. I am uplifted and cheered and more than a little astounded! Thank you!
Our late autumn days are rolling along happily, the Slavic aroma has drifted into other things, as it is wont to in this house: there's accordion and clarinet duetting, Baba Yaga drawing, and daily hound stomps out into the frost where the hills are crackling blue and Winter watches us all from over the hill, and throws her voice into this November, like the artful ventriloquist she is.