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When Words Do Not Suffice: Literary Sketches At The Lilly

Quirky artifacts—from Sylvia Plath's childhood sketches to Amiri Baraka’s decorated agenda book—offer alternate routes inside the minds of literary giants.

  • carroll, edit

    Image 1 of 2

    Photo: Zachary Downey

    Lewis Carroll drew "Peter Signing Bond" to share his vision for "Sylvie and Bruno" with the novel's illustrator Henry Furniss.

  • riley, two, edit

    Image 2 of 2

    Photo: Zachary Downey

    Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley painted this sign for the patented medicine McGrillus' Blood Tonic in 1872.

Event Information

Literary Sketches: Authors as Artists

An exhibition of visual art produced by writers, including Joseph Conrad, Charles Bukowski, Eudora Welty, Lewis Carroll, Amiri Baraka, Sylvia Plath, and others.

Lilly Library, Indiana University

Through September 3, 2011


The summer show at IU’s Lilly Library raises the curtain on well-known authors working outside of their usual beat. Gabriel Swift conceived of and curated the show, which gathers forays into visual art made by those better known for their poetry or prose. The materials displayed in Literary Sketches: Authors as Artists are not usually on view at the rare books repository, which houses 7.5 million manuscripts.

“Some of these were very easy to find,” explains Head of Reference and Public Services Becky Cape, who helped curate the show. “Others took more digging, or we just happened to know certain things were here.” Ashley Miller, Amy Auscherman , and Emily Witsell contributed to the effort.

From Signpainters To Scribblers

Literary Sketches includes work made by writers who were trained artists. Günther Grass’s highly skilled etchings are on view, for example, along with James Whitcomb Riley’s hand-painted advertising signs for McGrillus’ Tonic Blood Purifier and other such nineteenth-century remedies. But the show spans the gamut of artistic expertise to far less refined renderings.

A drawing that shows up on a letter written by a great American novelist belongs in the latter category. Injured in Italy while serving as an ambulance driver during WWI, Ernest Hemingway concluded a letter home with the crudest of sketches of his prone body, “drawn from life,” as he reports, with “227 wounds” all over his bandaged legs. “Give me a drink,” is scrawled in the dialogue balloon.

Other quirky artifacts—from handmade greeting cards by Ray Bradbury and Sylvia Plath to Amiri Baraka’s decorated appointment book—offer alternate routes inside the minds of literary giants.

Writers With Vision

On view, for example, are drawings Lewis Carroll made as prototypes for his novel Sylvie and Bruno.

Although Carroll considered himself an artist, he recognized his limitations. John Tenniel was hired to produce the well-known illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For the later Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll provided illustrator Henry Furniss sketches that convey just how definite the author’s vision was.

“Some of these sketches are quite elaborate,” Cape notes. “Apparently, Carroll worked so closely with Furniss that the artist began to pretend he was not at home when Carroll came by, and later wrote him that he would never ever work for him again.”

The illustrations Furniss did ultimately create for Sylvie and Bruno are on view alongside Carroll’s prototypes in Literary Sketches, which will remain at the Lilly Library through September 3, 2011.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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