A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the latest of our series of interviews with the foxes themselves, self-confessed “Arty Fox” Jackie talks to RosyB about wildlife painting, a certain “piglet” and THAT book. (I wonder which one it could be…)
RosyB: You are famous on Vulpes for your reviews of books about artists and you always have something to say about the cover art too. How important are covers to you when you pick a book? Do you think one can judge a book by its cover? 😉
Jackie: You can’t always judge a book by its cover, but it usually gives a hint of what’s inside. I pay a lot of attention to cover art, since it’s what usually draws the reader to a particular book, no pun intended. Good cover art sets a mood & entices the reader inside, but it can also stand on it’s own. For instance, I really like fantasy cover art, all the dragons & broadswords, but I never read fantasy novels.
For the artist, I would think a book cover would be a good challenge, working with all the limitations of size, theme and fonts imposed. There are many classics that I don’t think have ever gotten the definitive cover: Jane Eyre, always too glamorous, Christmas Carol, too chocolate box, etc. I don’t know if it’s due to too many editions or an intimidating subject.
RosyB: It’s always a problem, isn’t it? That even if the message of the book is trying to go against the norm that the cover so often represents the norm in order to sell it – beautiful heroine, pink for women etc etc. I often find that any picture of the characters never corresponds with my view of them.
Jackie: I think this is why there’s been a trend in the direction of that used on Phillipa Gregory’s novels, of not being able to see the faces of the figures on the covers. We can imagine whatever face we wish onto them. I do hope book covers never go the way of music album covers, which used to be so rich in the days of vinyl. Remember the Yes covers? Now the tiny format of the CD doesn’t allow much to be done. I mean, imagine Sgt. Pepper on a CD cover, they wouldn’t even try it now!
RosyB: Ok, now you HAVE to tell us about this Oscar and Lucinda thing. Tell us how you first encountered this book and what it was about it that had such an effect on you.
Jackie: Moira ought to have warned you what a dangerous topic O&L is. I was already a fan of Ralph Fiennes, when I heard he was in the film, so I went to the library to get the novel & stayed up all night reading it. Though I’ve read thousands of books, none ever affected me like that one.
Oscar is the perfect man for me. I can relate to so much of his personality: the oddness, the loneliness, the passion and dreams, the religion. But it’s not just that he is so similar to me, he is also someone whose goodness is something to strive for; his kindness, charity, ethics are so much better than mine, so it gives me a standard to aim for. He has many of the qualities I most like in a man; intelligence, sensitivity and gentleness. Even physically he’s appealing, the glorious red hair, being scrawny and vulnerable. *Sigh*
The film took months to come to Cleveland and I was frantic to see it. I saw it multiple times on the big screen after it arrived and it didn’t disappoint. It was perfectly cast and the film wove the layers and symbols together in a wondrous way.
I became so obsessed with this story that I have amassed a large collection of memorabilia from around the world devoted to it (I still need the lobby cards, so if anyone can help…). I sent a long typewritten letter to Peter Carey about it and he actually responded with a personal note. I’ve watched the video at least 400 times & have entire chunks of the book memorised. All of that is bad enough, but I became somewhat unbalanced in my obsession and Oscar became a real person to me, with all that entails.
I’ve calmed down considerably about it in the last few years, lucky for everyone. I know it sounds completely weird when I talk about it, but it was also helpful in my life. For instance, I learned to use a computer so I could look up stuff on O&L. lol
RosyB: Scrawny and vulnerable? Aha! A secret geek-fancier, like so many of us foxes! Something about that never-seen-the-light-of-day look, eh? Or is it the cardigans? For me it’s the spectacles…sorry, lost in a reverie there. I suppose characters in books can become almost like real people but with parts of ourselves mixed in. So there can be a really strong identification – stronger than film, I always think, because books can speak to the reader so directly and it’s such a private experience. Any other favourite characters, Jackie? (And are they all played by good old Ralphy?)
Jackie: I do like Justin in “The Constant Gardener” and yes, he’s played by Ralph in the film. My other favorite film character isn’t from a book at all, but is “Taffin” the title character in a Pierce Brosnan movie. He’s a scruffy, intellectual loner who has strong ethics & knows martial arts.
For me, geeks show a lot of vulnerability, which is what I find immensely attractive. They are busy thinking, so are unguarded and their real selves show through. They don’t cover it all up with tough guy bluster.
RosyB: As well as your activities on Vulpes, you are a wildlife artist – producing the most amazingly detailed scenes of fishes, birds, wild animals. I want to ask a few questions about both your art and interest in animals.
I’ve noticed that your scenes often have a story or a narrative behind them. Is story-telling something you think about when you start a painting?
Jackie: No one has ever asked me that question before & I think it’s quite astute of you, Rosy. And thank you for the lovely compliment.
While my work isn’t illustrations, I do spend a lot of time thinking about what the animals are doing and how they got to the point in my painting, much as you do with characters in a novel. Only I’m capturing just one moment in time, so it’s easier than having a story arc to follow. I imagine what the animal was doing the rest of the day or what it’s mood might be.I might wonder what path a fish took to get by that particular coral. In my “chase pictures”, where one creature is attempting to catch its prey, I leave it to the viewer to decide whether the snake catches the bird or whatever. It can allow the viewer to create their own story or just serve as a psychological insight.
RosyB: I find that idea of thinking of what led up to that moment, and what might come after quite fascinating. I thought about it because of your painting of rhino and her calf. Do you study and research animal behaviour in order to create a realistic scene?
Jackie: Oh thanks, glad you like the rhinos, I think they are prehistoric looking creatures. I do indeed research the animals before painting them, it’s a must. I have to be certain to get it the right color, in the right season and living in the right place. If not, it completely ruins the integrity of the picture and makes me look like a ninny.
My childhood was spent watching a lot of nature documentaries, such as those by Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic, which left me with the ability to picture animal movements and their habitats, so I just tap into that to imagine a scene.
RosyB: You are well-known in the den for your love of animals and your guinea-pig, Rufus. He sounds like quite a character. What’s his view of Vulpes Libris? Fussed? Or not so much?
Jackie: Rufus seems to like me being part of VL, because he’s in the same room as the computer. When I’m writing a review, he can pester me for a steady supply of carrots & lettuce leaves. He can see the monitor from his cage, so has seen VL onscreen, but so far hasn’t made any comments. I do sense that he would like us to review more vegetable books.
RosyB: Hmmm. Vegetables we have known and loved – how about that for a theme week? And we were wondering who it was searching for “Mushroom Costume” – he had the means, he had the motive…I think we have our pig!
Jackie: No, no, piglets can’t even eat mushrooms!
RosyB (disappointed): Ok, fair enough. So, onto the inevitable top five books (and Rufus can tell us his favourite too)
Jackie: Rufus’s favorite book is The Fairy Caravan by Beatrix Potter, about the adventures of Tuppenny, the guinea pig. My 5 faves are harder to choose, there’s so many books I like.
1. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (see above. lol)
2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Anne Dillard – a quiet book of observing the course of nature over a year near the author’s home. Simple idea, but has a Zen fascination.
3. Ahead of All Parting by Rainer Maria Rilke – this is a collection of his best known, lyrical poetry and his philosophical prose. Mystical.
4. On Bear Mountain by Deborah Smith – a novel about a family and a sculpture, full of symbols of art, love and nature.
5. Trinity by Leon Uris – this novel of revolutionary Ireland is one where sweeping is properly applied. It has well drawn characters, a suspenseful plot and an emotional punch. You’ll never think of bluebells the same after.
Thanks so much, Jackie, for giving us this insight into our resident Arty Fox.
*Jackie's pictures Reptilian Rainbow and Seahorses reproduced with kind permission of the artist. Copyright belongs to the artist. Not to be copied or reproduced without permission.