One could make a strong argument that Paula Lawrie takes the most unique approach to memoir of any graphic artist working today, filtering her childhood experiences through a modernist lens in the pages of her ongoing My Geometic Family ‘zine — which we’ve examined on this blog in the past and whose title I would encourage you to take quite literally indeed — but I think what strikes me most about her work, in addition to the combination of technical expertise and visionary conceptualization evidenced in all of her richly-detailed illustrations, is how she seamlessly combines the dual viewpoints of her young, admittedly naive, self with that of the worldly (perhaps even world-weary) grown woman that she is today. It’s one thing to see events through a child’s eyes, but quite another to see them through the eyes of an adult who is, in turn, seeing them through a child’s eyes herself. Which only sounds confusing, I assure you — the truth is that Lawrie seamlessly integrates it all and, by so doing, manages to avoid the trap of turning this unique point of view into the further remove that it admittedly sounds like on paper.
All of which brings us to High Socks New Jersey 1950, originally conceived of as a “suite” (I fucking hate that term) of narratively-linked drawings by Lawrie that has now been collected into book from by Pacific and Marvin Gardens — and it couldn’t be a more natural “fit” for the project, as the 36 illustrations that make up the story are presented side-by-side with hand-written (in cursive, no less) captions for each that are more than just rote descriptions, and actually function as poetically austere captions that belie the innocence, and loss thereof, that is the emotive heart of this entire enterprise.
The book’s production values (high-quality greyscale printing on cream-colored paper that brings out the richness and texturing in all of Lawrie’s pencils, inks, and washes) speak to the care that was taken in the composition of the illustrations themselves and help to form a kind of hermetically-sealed reality much (even painfully) like our own, but also different in key respects — the most obvious of which is, well, the people don’t look like people from the neck up. This is a signature Lawrie conceit by now of course, and while it may alienate the unimaginative and conservative, for astute readers the choices she makes in terms of deciding which shape (in this case either organic or geometric) she ascribes to each character offer chances to speculate on the relation and resonance between them — a glimpse “behind the curtain,” if you will, that goes beyond mere revelation of method and charges headlong into the wonderfully nebulous wellspring that is inspiration itself. Grandiose? Sure, I guess. Accurate? Absolutely.
With a narrative centered around Lawrie’s own youthful experiences as the new kid in a suburban New Jersey town, the “growing up” happens fast and ugly here as she’s exposed to anti-Semitism for the first time in her life, and must come to terms with both the illogical nature of prejudice and its destructive effect on her own nascent attempts to fit in all in one go — and when you’re an outcast for reasons you only vaguely understand and have no control over, what the hell are you supposed to do? Clearly, it’s something Lawrie’s spent a lot of time thinking about in the years since, and the reality of what she lived through still, entirely understandably, haunts her to this day.
By the end, though, Lawrie’s family has relocated once again, and while it’s to a more open-minded and rational community, it’s no panacea by any means. Indeed, the grass is really never greener by very much in this book, and while the narrative itself is wonderfully simple and direct, the emotional complexity of this project shouldn’t be underestimated by anyone. Simply put, this one sticks with you as clearly as it’s struck with its creator, and the patterning and shading and abstractions that Lawrie employs are more than just artistic tools at her disposal — they reflect and amplify the themes she’s subtly driving home from first drawing to last.
Lawrie’s carried much of what she learned in this newly-published earlier work into her more recent efforts, as seen in the image above, but make no mistake : this is no mere “starter” project — it’s a fully-realized, and agonizingly resonant, illustrated story in its own right. It’s also one not to be missed under any circumstances.
High Socks New Jersey 1950 is available for $30.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/highsocks.html
Review wrist check – it’s never a bad time to break out my “Blackout Edition” of Zodiac’s classic “Super Sea Wolf 53.” Always a favorite no matter the weather or what you happen to be wearing.