Selznick’s Secret Doorways by Jason Griffith
The neat thing about seeing Van Gogh’s paintings live and in-person is that you can clearly see the brush strokes in the texture of the paint. It only takes a little imagination to picture Van Gogh madly dashing and dabbing his way across the canvas.
In June, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, and one of their featured exhibitions was Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses. It was the first time the four paintings in the set had been reunited since Van Gogh painted them 125 years ago. An exciting event for sure, but I had come for a different reason. Brian Selznick was taking part in a lecture called “Showing to Tell,” part of Julie Burstein’s “Spark” series of cultural conversations at the museum.
The neat thing about examining a Brian Selznick illustration is that you can clearly see the ghosts of pencil marks in the background from his cross-hatching method. It’s almost like we’re peeking over Selznick’s shoulder as he meticulously sketches the minute details of his reference.
I wish I could say that I came to the Met mainly to celebrate the significance of a Caldecott-winning author and illustrator sitting on a panel with an expert on Rembrandt. No doubt children’s and graphic literature being offered a seat at the table at one of the most venerable art institutions in the world is a momentous event. With full disclosure, however, it was the promise of a galley of Selznick’s The Marvels which prompted my day trip from Pennsylvania.
Still, as a panelist, Selznick impressively balanced the childlike curiosity which drives his characters while also sharing glimpses of his own processes which prove him to be a true creative force for our time.
“As a museum-goer, you dream of going through the secret doors,” he offered early in the talk.
The caverns of our imaginations take shape in the passageways of Selznick’s books. From the clock towers of the Paris Nord train station in The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History and the panorama at the Queens Museum in Wonderstruck to the recesses of a mysterious London mansion in his upcoming The Marvels, Selznick takes us through the secret doors. Throughout the panel, Selznick also offered a glimpse behind the secret doors of his creative process.
Selznick noted, “There’s a profound difference between seeing original artwork and seeing reproductions or slides of the art.” The conversation shifted back towards the magic of seeing Van Gogh’s brush strokes up close. Selznick revealed a connection to his cross-hatching method.
He wants us to see the marks of his cross-hatching. It’s an intentional choice designed to showcase the painstaking precision involved in each drawing. Though we are not necessarily seeing his original art, we are seeing his hand at work and can therefore appreciate the craft that went into it, just like with Van Gogh.
Selznick also said that one of the remarkable things about visiting an art museum is that, “You are standing in the same relationship to the paper or canvas that the artist was.” Interestingly, Selznick also considers the physical perspective of the audience as he creates.
Selznick first draws his illustrations on index card-sized paper, but he does so with the awareness that the illustration will be blown up to the size of the book page and then even to the size of a movie screen for presentations. Because of his meticulous process, he has confidence that the image will hold up at any size. Rather than simply offering the artist’s perspective, Selznick gives us a magnifying glass to zoom into his art, and, yet again, we are pulled through the secret doors.
Selznick doesn’t just write and draw; he designs, which is why, so far, he’s resisted e-book formats. His stories are meant to be held, the pages need to be flipped, and the illustrations compel us to do so. Just as we can’t fully experience an art museum through an online photo gallery, we can’t be fully absorbed into a Selznick book without touching it.
Besides being a visionary in blending visual and textual storytelling, Selznick is also preservationist of the tactile reading experience. His books are both museum-quality artifacts, offering the perspective of the artist and a glimpse into his process, but they also provide a reading experience with the chance for readers to become curators.
We dictate the speed of our experience, pausing to zoom in on the pictures that captivate us, and madly flipping the pages when we get caught up in the action. Just as we would on a daytrip through the Met.
Jason Griffith (@JGriff_Teach) is a Teaching Associate and PhD student in English Education at Arizona State University. A National Board Certified Teacher and a National Writing Project Fellow, Jason taught middle school and high school English in PA for 12 years. In 2012, Jason received NCTE’s Edwin A. Hoey Award for Outstanding Middle School English Language Arts Teacher, and he currently serves on NCTE’s Middle Level Section Steering Committee.