Abraham Lincoln’s birthday illustration

In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday this month, and the recent release of the Steven Spielberg film about Lincoln that has generated new interest in the 17th President, I submit some workings from my most recent book, Forget-Me-Nots, Poems to learn by heart, (written and compiled by poet laureate Mary Ann Hoberman) which contains a poem about Abe, or more accurately, about his dead mother…

At first have to admit up front I did not even know the poem was about Abe, I plead ignorant about poetry in general, until I was politely reminded by the review staff at Little, Brown that the clothes of the woman needed to look more like Lincoln’s mother would have worn… If you have read the poem, Nancy Hanks, (by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Brown), it does not declare it is specifically about the American Civil War president. In fact even if it was intended as such it could be graphically interpreted as a story about any mother asking about her son from beyond the grave…

Perhaps that’s part of the reason I did not focus on the narrator’s identity, because was was too busy trying to figure out how to  represent such an abstract concept in the tiny column space surrounding the printed poem. It was , after all about a woman,  a mother, clearly not around anymore, presumably dead, asking someone, anyone, about the welfare of her son, mentioning him as a child when she left him, to when he becomes an adult. Clearly she cannot see him herself or she would not be asking. But who she is able to talk to or hear, who can see him, or would know about him is also unclear. Perhaps it is simply a sad rhetorical plea she understands full well cannot be answered.

At any rate, it is a complex idea that works well without images. But could it work as a picture? And without using a black coat and top hat?? In the end, as you can see in the images below, I made her arching about the poem as if floating above the world, reaching out to the young son from above, whom she would have known, as he blindly reaches up, for some memory of his mother perhaps, while the older version of the boy, separated by time by the column of text, and facing away, oblivious to the mother’s yearning, studies away in his book, to become the well known learned politician he becomes as a man. Quite a complex thing to pull off and one of the problems of this book I’m most proud to get anywhere close to solving. I know nobody can ever know how hard we puzzle these things out when it all looks so simple after the fact. But you do need to feel satisfied that someone someday my scrutinize the book as much as I did, and not be disappointed.

The progression of sketches is as follows: Early concept drawing directly onto the “galleys”, or rough printed layouts of text, which I often do first, then sketchbook puzzling of options, then a tighter sketch, then the same sketch inserted in the layout and given some black and white shading in Photoshop to present as a final dummy, then the final pencil line drawing, then the final art in watercolor. You can see in the early version she is dressed more ambiguously, and looks a bit like she’s been hung out with the laundry… and I made her a little squiggly to make her seem a bit more like an apparition than flesh and blood. also you can see early on I illustrated the poem on the right, facing page as two frogs whispering, then changed my mind as I went through the book and linked the poems visually where I could, regardless of how related they seemed in the manuscript.

This was actually one of the most straightforward illustrations in the book, and very close to the original concept. I’ll post some of the more circuitous drawings next.  (Of course, all copyrights to the text of poems shown here are strictly the author’s or the author’s estate and not to be reproduced in full for any reason without their specific approval and due credit.)