Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Into the Green: The Art of Charles Vess

by Cory Godbey

We all crave story, a narrative that will see us safely through the dark forest of our lives. We know that we will confront dragons there as well as evil witches, greedy kings and a very few kindly helpers. We know that if we can only win through to the other side of that wood then we will come to the tall, lean tower where our truth lies hidden.  
Art. Nature. Music. Reading. All help us along that twisting path.
Charles Vess, Into the Green, 2015.

Into the Green: The Art of Charles Vess is a current exhibition at the William King Museum in Virginia. 

It's one that I haven't made it to yet (and time is fleeting, it's coming down on September 27th!) but I'm making plans to visit. You had the entire summer, Godbey, you might say. I know. I know. I'll get there.

I wear my artistic influences on my sleeve and so it's no secret to say that Charles' work has had a tremendous impact on my own. I've had the chance to see many of his other works in person and, my goodness, it's as if he's painting with distilled magic (it's actually colored inks). 

I'm drawn to his work for the exact same reasons that I'm drawn to this field of fantasy art and "imaginative realism" in general. It represents the perfect crystallization of what I love: draftsmanship, storytelling, and imagination. There is enchantment in the works of Charles Vess.

I have seen landscapes… which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. 
Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do.

C. S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, 1966.

One unique feature of the exhibition that I am particularly interested to see for myself is the mural which wraps around the interior of the show. Like it? Too bad! It's only going to be there for the duration of the exhibition and when the show comes down it's gone. (Just one more reason to see it in person!)

It looks to be a wonderful collection of works from one of my very favorite voices in contemporary fantasy art. After I make it up to the show I'm sure I'll be able to do a follow up post with my own impressions.

From the William King Museum,

Into the Green showcases art from the fantastical worlds of Charles Vess including new works, personal favorites, and an exclusive gallery-wide mural that illustrates the journey we all travel through life.

Award winning fantasy artist and illustrator Charles Vess is known around the world and has called Abingdon, Virginia his home since 1991. Recent publications include illustrations for Charles de Lint’s novels Seven Wild Sisters and The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, which are set in Washington County, Virginia. Collaborations with writer Neil Gaiman have resulted in numerous projects including several illustrated issues of his acclaimed Sandman series and the four-part series Stardust, which was made into a motion picture in 2007 and an exhibit at William King Museum of Art in 2006. Vess has worked on other commissions including the fountain Midsummer Play across from the Barter Theatre, is represented locally by Mallory Fine Art, and keeps a studio steps away from Main Street in Abingdon.

All images and photographs are © Charles Vess. Used with permission.


  1. I'd so love to see this show... I'm really longing to get a look at Charles' art in person - it's so inspirational in print, I can only imagine what it's like in reality! Anyone who hasn't yet bought his book Drawing Down The Moon, I strongly recommend that you do so. It's gorgeous, and filled with treasure...

  2. Sorry I will miss this exhibit. Charles is a brilliant story teller, draftsman and artist. I know I would come away equal parts inspired and overwhelmed! Enjoy the show Corey and any others who can make it...

  3. Thanks Cory! The mural itself is 12 x 150ft and painted directly on the gallery walls. It is a narrative story that moves from right to left. And yes, it will be painted over when the exhibition comes down on September 27. The strange white boards that appear to be floating about a foot above the floor are actually screens for two separate slide presentations. The first is a retrospective of my work, the other shows my artistic influences. Each consists of about 130 slides. I hope that at least some of you can come down for a visit. Best, Charles (as Rackhamtree because neither Google or Live Journal will let me use my real name, go figure?)

  4. Beautiful work...it's a pity Mr. Vess thinks contemporary fantasy art is "too violent" tho.

  5. It is beautiful. I see the connection with Corey's work so directly. Also, I'm not sure why it's "a pity" that he may think contemporary fantasy art is too violent (I had not heard this before). Each of us has our own feelings about art that we enjoy, and opinions about what is good in art. Gentle souls may feel offended by violence and darkness, and that's their privilege. An accomplished and knowledgeable master may have his or her own ideas about what they'd like to see more of or less of. And I welcome hearing those ideas informed by much experience, whether I agree with them or not.

    1. I'm not saying the man hasn't the right to think what he does, I just think it's not as violent as he professes, especially in Spectrum, cause that was his issue.

      Other artists think that, at least in the top echelons, there's too little "violent" art, that most
      of it is fantasy butterfly art, very flowery. That that is a result of a possible attempt to cater to a
      "high art" audience or whatever.

      I don't know because I've never seen a Spectrum book up close, however I can say there seems
      to be a lack of the occasional mystifying dungeon crawl piece. Fantasy art's had anything and
      everything, there's no limit to it, but it's one thing to encompass everything, and quite another to
      totally ostracize the themes and narratives that made the genre.


    2. I read his quote as saying that there's been an "ostracizing" of the original themes and images fantasy art in its classical sense, as it was illustrated by Rackham, Wyeth, etc., and that he thinks this has gone too far. And I think you are just saying that you disagree with that analysis. I love Spectrum books myself, and I'll have to go back and see if I understand his point.

    3. I can't have an opinion on Spectrum beyond art I've seen online from time to time. And from discussions artists have had on this subject, the consensus was that Mr Vess was a tad hyperbolic, and I tend to agree, especially when you look at the top echelons of art that Spectrum is supposed to represent (again, I do't have any Spectrum books, I judge mostly from what I have happened on).

      I don't think the fantasy that was shunned by the literary and art world for years, is what Wyeth's, St. John's or Burrows' fantasy was. Artistically we do look up to that period of course, however, that's not the kind of work which has majorly and directly affected the world the past six or seven decades and there's a definite jump from one era to the other.

      So, I wouldn't call that era 'classic' or the genre 'fantasy'. Sure, there's the odd painting of a wizard now and again, but really, fantasy has it's roots more firmly planted in the brutal world of Conan or the human sacrifices of the Iliad, than the romanticized adventure tales of the late 19th and early 20th century.

      Yet, fantasy has encompassed far more than what it started out as, including the era of Wyeth, which is more than I could say for other genres of art or literature. So maybe the genre's not all blood and guts like he says, especially since he's selling too?

    4. Well, there certainly is a genre - I don't know what it is, maybe more children's fantasy art - that Vess belongs to. And I like it a lot. That was the art that got me interested in art as a young child, and IMO much of the best of it is excellent art. Which doesn't mean I don't like a million other artists and types of art. I really don't know if that "classical" children's fantasy art in not being taken seriously, or not recognized these days. It would be too bad if it's not, though, in my opinion.

    5. Anything not close to the comic/dark fantasy theme is or can be in that "style" or sub-genre. If it's execution is closer to realism or not is another thing though, and maybe that's where things get a little 'muddy' he he. Still I think the branch of art Mr. Vess is in is taken very seriously and recognized a lot. I honestly can't see his problem. Still, his art is great.

  6. And wow, the Rackham influence! Charles, your pseudonym is well-chosen.