Located in the Incline District of East Price Hill, The Flats Art Gallery sits in a renovated apartment building across the street from BLOC Coffee Company, and only a few minute’s walk from the immensely popular Incline Public House. On an overcast day, in an unseasonably warm December, the neon OPEN signs behind the gallery’s plate glass windows shone like twin beacons above a relatively sleepy street.
After waiting a few minutes outside a pair of locked doors, the Gallery Director, Michael Paolercio was kind enough to buzz my small group in, and to introduce us to the work of several local artists before moving on to the current exhibit, featuring the work of C. F. Payne. Payne, an artist-illustrator noted for the astonishing breadth of his editorial work—his portfolio includes covers for Time Magazine, Readers Digest, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Book Review, Mad Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly, among others—as well as a number of children’s books, recently illustrated The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published by Creative Editions. According to Paolercio, eighty illustrations were commissioned for the book, of which sixty are on display at the gallery. In addition to the artwork, signed copies of the handsomely designed book are available for purchase.
The sheer number of pieces on display tend to overwhelm at first, but one is soon plunged into the fictional world of St. Petersburg, inundated with familiar, even treasured names like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Injun Joe, and Aunt Polly. Payne’s illustrations are done either in pencil or a combination of colored pencils and watercolors. The latter technique is most successful, producing finished pieces evocative of Norman Rockwell. It is a comparison the artist, an admirer of Rockwell, shies away from, but it is nonetheless unavoidable. The color palette, exaggerated anatomy, and charm of these pieces is unmistakably Rockwellian, but the strength of Payne’s visual language shines through, positioning him as a kindred spirit rather than an imitator. Other pieces, mainly the monochromatic sketches, don’t fit neatly into a single category, hovering somewhere between traditional children’s book drawings and the panels of a well-rendered graphic novel. The Runaways Cook Their Meal is the most captivating image of this sort, detailing the “piratical” life of Joe, Huck, and Tom on Jackson’s Island. Still others, like Mark Twain middle age, tend toward caricature, a less engaging technique suited better to the editorial work Payne has done in the past.
Injun Joe infested his dreams is the most abstract piece in the show, featuring three sets of peering eyes all set in distinct rectangular patches of black ink. The title is derived from the line, “Injun Joe infested all his dreams, and always with doom in his eye,” and the image perfectly encapsulates Tom’s state of mind after breaking an oath of silence and testifying against Injun Joe in court.
Some pieces, like Jim and Mary, are simple but charming depictions of the characters in the book, providing reference for those wishing to distinguish one name from the next, while others, like “Turn out! turn out! they’re found! they’re found!”, depict scenes of action. In this case, the image’s comically animated figure represents one of the “frantic half-clad people” signaling the improbable escape of Tom and Becky Thatcher from McDougal’s Cave.
It is fascinating to see these characters, who exist primarily in the mind of the reader, come forth as pre-defined beings. The Tom in the illustrations is Payne’s Tom, a character formed from the same descriptions and yet different, somehow, from the Tom known to generations of Americans. In a sense, the act of illustrating a book violates the imagination of its reader, doing the heavy lifting and supplying a pre-fabricated world. For some readers, the response will surely be, “My Tom is taller, less scrawny, less angelic, dirtier, tougher, more innocent, has shorter hair.” These readers might entirely reject the insouciant imposter set before them. Yet Payne’s illustrations are fun and engaging, capable of standing on their own, as they do in the show, or as supplements to an American classic. For many readers, perhaps a plurality, the illustrations will enhance their reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Others, like myself, prefer to see them in an environment like The Flats Art Gallery, where they can be viewed in all their multifarious glory. It is my hope that Payne continues to embrace his inner Rockwell, as that particular style speaks to me most. But more so, I hope that as an artist with such a diversity of talent, Payne will continue to forge his own path, to discover new techniques, and to add to an evermore impressive body of work.
C.F. Payne Meets Tom Sawyer opened on November 20th and will run through December 24th at The Flats Art Gallery, located at 3028 Price Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45205 in the Incline District of East Price Hill.