Stranger Territories: Reinterpreting Mary's Lamb
Nozlee Samadzadeh

Of Lamb, the book, is a story about the love between a lamb and a girl named Mary, written by Matthea Harvey, with artwork by Amy Jean Porter, and published by McSweeney’s. The book unfolds in the form of 106 short poems that Harvey wrote by erasing words from a biography of 19th century British essayist Charles Lamb. She then passed off the manuscript to Porter, who combined the words with her wildly interpretive images of lambs, celebrities (Oprah makes an appearance), and other fauna and flora.

Of Lamb, the exhibition, is the collection of all 106 gouache and ink drawings created by Porter for the book, opening at PPOW on Thursday, June 23. Just as with any exhibition catalogue, nothing can beat seeing an artwork in person, and Porter’s vibrant colors shine from the walls as they can’t from the book’s pages.

This is Porter’s first book, but she has had solo shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Paris. More recently, she has had a drawings series at The Awl (she and co-editor Choire Sicha are old friends, and her first solo show in 2003 was exhibited at his gallery Debs & Co). We talked to Porter about firefly season, her artistic inspirations for the drawings, and the intersection of text and image.

With Of Lamb, your series Drawings in a Hurry on The Awl, and your illustrations in magazines like Meatpaper, you reach a different audience than you would with gallery shows. How is it to be back in Chelsea?

AJP: It’s really exciting for me to see the drawings up. They are insanely bright and look across the room at each other. I love putting handmade things into magazines and books and the internet – drawings for everyone to hold in their laps (or laptops). But there’s nothing quite like having the drawing itself, and all its quirks of color and line, out there in the world at eye level having conversations with strangers. I think they probably have great conversations with New Yorkers.

This is your first collaboration, and your first book! How has the process been? What did you think when you saw the erasures for the first time?

AJP: I am very fond of collaborations. In my previous work, I have had collaborations with other people’s words (they just didn’t always know it). Matthea is pretty much a dream collaborator – she made brilliant words and then let me take them and play with them and push them around in pictures. The erasures are gorgeous and transporting.

What is it like having the erasures on view near the artworks? In Of Lamb, we don’t even learn about them until the book’s end!

AJP: Matthea’s whited-out erasure book is in the gallery in a beautiful tall glass box at the end of the narrative of the drawings, very much like in the book. The understory of Charles and Mary Lamb, and of the erasure of their story, lies in wait below the surface of the pictures.

The play between text and image is the backbone of so much of your work. What was it like having the words pre-chosen for you instead of finding them in the Bible, hip-hop songs, French-English dictionaries, etc?

AJP: It was different but the same. I’m always on the lookout for words that inspire in some way – that have some quality of unexpectedness when looked at from the side. Matthea’s Lamb poems are like this. I found them inspiring and had a lot of fun trying to find ways to push their meaning into stranger territories.

You’ve drawn over 1,200 species of animals in your career, but here we have 106 versions of just one! Both are very big projects to undertake. How did you stay focused on Of Lamb when you didn’t want to draw another sheep ever again? How do you feel when scientists discover a new species of frog in the rainforest that you’ll have to draw someday?

AJP: Ha! It’s true, there are always new discoveries. I love that there have been recent discoveries of unknown monkeys in the last couple of years. (We think we know so much.) I like the idea of trying to spend a little bit of time with each of the bizillions of creatures on the planet. For Lamb, I enjoyed befriending this one particular character – for years, it was me and Lamb hanging out together for a few hours every day. Now that I’m finished with the series, I miss him.

From Amy Jean Porter: of Lamb, Courtesy of PPOW Gallery.

Did you do a lot of planning or storyboards for what would go on each page throughout the whole of the book, or did you tackle each page one by one? Each page feels like a new world, zooming through close-ups, sparse pages, really densely decorated pages…

AJP: I tried to do a storyboard when I was first getting started. But planning ahead became so boring, and all the pictures were so boring. I realized it was much more exciting to have a new challenge with each picture and just dive in. I would carry a handful of poems around in my head for a few days and look for ways to stitch them together into smaller narrative arcs. My favorite series are the cloisters (a pink bathroom) and a melting lamb pop.

The text in Of Lamb weaves in and around the images to serve as much more than just captions. Did you have any artistic influences in how the text intertwines (often literally) with the depicted characters?

AJP: I’m a big fan of Francis Picabia and Erik Satie. They both did some great things with text and image. There’s also an obvious shout-out to Ed Ruscha. I wanted the text to feel more object-like (rather than symbol-like), like a thing in the world. I wanted text and image to walk hand-in-hand.

The architectural and interior styles in the images range from modern corner bookshelves to baroque chairs to suburban one-family homes. Is there a theme or pattern to Mary and Lamb’s surroundings?

AJP: I had a vague notion that it would be the architecture of your memories of your first love – of having this home that is just kind of suburban and average, but the details of its insides are all mixed up and embellished. Also, since it’s the relationship between a human and an animal, I wanted the distinction between inside and outside to be kind of blurry. So chairs and plants intertwine, and chandeliers hang from the sky (mistress, consider the clouds above me a roof).

What are you working on now? More collaborations?

AJP: Matthea and I have talked about collaborating on a story about a seal named Norma. So that’s pretty great. I’ve also begun some larger drawings that involve insects. I’m not far enough along yet to have anything substantial to say. But firefly season has begun and everyone should go outside and enjoy that.