The Real Wizard of Oz
From 1974-1977 as a child living on the hippie trail, snuggly ensconced in my family's house-truck, traveling over hill and dale throughout north America, I had the time and inclination to fall deeply in love with L. Frank Baum's glorious "Oz" books. There was a collection of 12 or so of these books in the house-truck, and I read each one over and over again. These books were my friends while we were on the road. My family didn't have a regular life, we were always traveling, but so were the characters in the books. Dorothy's adventures were dangerous and exciting and full of creative twists, which made my own unsettled state seem more regular, or normal.
While we drove across Kansas, or parked in Idaho, or parked with friends in Nevada, I sank into these books, into another world, and was throughly immersed by the brilliance of John Rae Neill's illustrations. Neill uses pen and ink to create natural, yet wildly opulent characters and fantastic creatures. He has an ability to show movement and gesture along with draftsman-like technical perfection. He can draw early century "Gibson" girls with tiny royal circlets on their heads, long robes and intricately carved sceptors. From a fashion standpoint, his art is seminal. I saw my first "snood" on Glinda the Good! Neill can also illustrate crazy characters such as the Patchwork Girl, a full-sized stuffed doll animated by "Living Powder". Or Ruggedo, the Gnome King who looks like an Evil Underground Santa. Thanks to L. Frank Baum's amazing stories, Neill gets the chance to illustrate some very strange scenes. The princess Langwidere's 30 different heads, for example, that she keeps in a large room of cupboards. She chooses a head according to her mood, and can keep changing them all day long if she likes. Or the Glass Cat who is completely transparent, with little pink brains you can see work. Then there's the Lost King who has been enchanted to believe he is a tailor. He has ears that he can take off and send off to listen to things, then they fly back and reattach themselves to the side of his head, and tell him what they heard. It's a bit psychadelic, really, but being steeped in the hippy movement of the time, it seemed perfectly logical to me.
I will always be grateful to JR Neill for helping me see beyond my world, into his delightful 1904 world of fantasy and beauty. I still feel transported by his work, and as an artist am totally inspired.