John Carlson: It’s Not Gory, But It’s Gorey

Edward Gorey, Haunted America, 1990. Watercolor, pen and ink, and pencil on paper. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, American Paintings and Drawings Purchase Fund, 2015.4.1.© The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.Edward Gorey, Haunted America, 1990. Watercolor, pen and ink, and pencil on paper. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, American Paintings and Drawings Purchase Fund, 2015.4.1.© The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.

By: John Carlson—

It was a dark and stormy night…

No. Wait. On second thought, make that “afternoon.” It was a dark and stormy afternoon. Following a marvelously tasty Italian dinner enjoyed at Osteria 32, Phil and Susie Bremen, plus Nancy and I, walked into the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University. We were in search of the exhibit (cue the spooky organ music) “Gorey’s Worlds.”

From somewhere nearby, a woman was faintly yet plaintively moaning. Following the sound into the Patricia Schaefer and Tove Stimson Gallery, we discovered its source. It was coming from a large screen upon which, in a continuous loop, played the darkly stylized opening of the longtime PBS series, “Masterpiece Mystery.” Featuring curious detectives, sobbing skies and a tombstone topped by a winking skull, the video was weird, distinctive and unforgettable, just like its creator.

Edward Gorey.

If you didn’t know he’d created the show’s opening before, you knew it now. Gorey (1925-2000) was a unique figure in American art, and a celebrated one. The vast majority of his work has a fetching but nightmarish quality. His last name notwithstanding, it’s not gory, by any means. But it’s entertainingly disturbing and thought-provoking, the sort of thing that can keep you up and rolling around under your blankets at night. The artist had a way with words, too. These also hint at a certain unhinged, slightly devious quality, the sort of verse that under the right circumstances settles in your mind, then resolutely refuses to leave. Gorey produced more than 100 books in his career. A typical one of them, perhaps, “The Doubtful Guest,” features a sad, strange, mysterious little creature of unknown origin, and this short epitaph.

“It would carry off objects of which it grew fond,

And protect them by dropping them into the pond.”

Up in the gallery, a dry and airy place, you can ponder the identity of these now sunken objects, and wonder what led to their unfortunate submersion. The story behind other works by Gorey, a Yale graduate whose classmates included the late, distinguished American poet Donald Hall, are less ambiguous. There’s a copy under glass of “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” for which the artist drew the cover. You might recognize that book as the source of “Cats,” the Broadway mega-hit. As for a famous artist like Gorey working as a book illustrator? OK, fine, but he didn’t draw illustrations for just any old schmuck. “Old Possum’s Book …” was written by no less a wordsmith than Nobel-literature laureate T.S. Eliot.

Speaking of plays, there’s also a poster advertising Gorey’s own stage production of “Dracula,” which starred the ominously handsome Frank Langella as the debonair, blood-sucking, night stalker.

Other examples of art – Gorey’s own and pieces from his personal collection – run the gamut and share wall space in the exhibit. There’s a pen-and-ink drawing of a cat and flowers. Naturally, it’s distinctive, being a Manet. And there among Gorey’s own delightful weirdnesses hangs another artist’s less distinctive rendering of a cow. Yeah, a cow. Maybe the cow helped Gorey keep his mind grounded among the critters cohabiting his world of artistic oddities. Also hanging in the exhibit is a Gorey-drawn cover of The New Yorker. Not exactly a homey, holiday picture, it portrays a strange family decorating a scrawny Christmas tree with gift-wrapping paper.

It makes you wonder: How would Gorey have portrayed Santa Claus?

Among the works displayed are some photographs of the artist, an imposing figure at 6-feet-4. A few of his personal effects are displayed, too. There are a couple rings and his gold pocketknife. There’s a turtleneck sweater – an odd item for display, on reflection, but apparently one of his favorite pieces of apparel. There are also two of his coats. These are lush fur coats, it should be noted, and likely worn by Gorey back before many came to believe that fur, forgive the colloquialism, ain’t cool. Given their owner’s unique nature in the art world, however, anything less just wouldn’t have seemed, well, Gorey-ish.

At any rate, this remarkable collection, which will be open until Dec. 21, is well worth a visit. Furthermore, it’s priced to move, as folks in retail say, meaning it’s free.

Also remarkable, if you haven’t visited in a while, is the Owsley museum itself. It’s extraordinarily classy, to the point where it’s almost hard to believe it resides in our fair little city. The place is much larger than I remembered from my last visit, and loaded with exhibits. Many of these exhibits are breathtakingly beautiful. Others feature masks and such that could give Gorey a run for his money, in his quest for the macabre.

After seeing all that, I needed a little quiet contemplation to settle my mind before re-entering the real world. Hitching a ride downstairs in a rickety elevator, I was soon seated before the museum’s circa-1680 bronze Buddha, a rotund fellow I had once visited in an earlier pilgrimage. As sort of a Buddhist-leaning Lutheran, I was soon at peace before it, wishing I had a pocketful of change to place at its base for good luck. There must have been five bucks worth of coins scattered there, the majority of them pennies. There was also a lonely plastic guitar pick, one some undoubtedly impoverished musician had left behind, in a bid for good fortune.

All in all, it was a fine place to spend some time. Cool exhibit. Cool museum. Cool everything.


Unless otherwise noted, the works in this exhibition have been provided by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.



A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.