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A Gift of Days, by Stephen Alcorn

Posted on 2009.10.05 at 19:24

Stephen Alcorn’s latest book is a collaboration between the printmaker and history itself.  What discerns one book of quotations from another is the selection; either by subject or, as seen here, by speakers.  What makes this collection quite unique is that the speakers have been chosen not for their ethnicity, gender, or profession, but for their ability to inspire an artist such as Alcorn to set his carving knife in motion.  As a writer who often takes a notepad to museums and scrawls rapidly between paintings, it’s interesting to see a printmaker prove that a word is worth a thousand colors. 

With each portrait reflecting both thought and thinker, the original art almost outshines the quotations.  Lennon and McCartney are the Kings of Hearts.  James Baldwin stares through eyes like caves.  Ray Charles is a fountain of sweat.  Nina Simone’s scratched cheeks are the treasure chest where her voice is kept.  Billie Holiday’s portrait is an exact replica of her famous wailing profile but for a tear on her cheek and a skull in her hair.  Sometimes, that’s all there is between mediocrity and mastery. 

Everyone from Michelangelo to Madonna is here, making the readers swim through the classical and the contemporary.  For this reason, it is an excellent primer for kids, and Alcorn is a seasoned guide for children in the worlds of art and history.  (See I, TOO, SING AMERICA and THE BOOK OF ROCKSTARS.)  However, there is no way an adult could dismiss an image of Karl Marx emanating from a smoke stack or the line “…what is done in love is done well” as juvenile.

Many have noted that the book is difficult to categorize and indeed, what it does best of all, simply by example, is question so many of our modern assumptions about art and the arts.  Who says Shakespeare fans don’t listen to Johnny Cash?  Why do we so rarely see women represented this well in history books?  And when did illustration get restricted to children’s literature, no matter how masterful?  As Queen Latifah and Gandhi and the other beaming subjects know, "hard to categorize” is a quality necessary for brilliance.