So there’s this classic children’s story, more than 200 years old and passed across continents, charmingly illustrated. A mother tells her young son that she’s stepping out for a bit, and asks that he not suck his thumb while she’s gone. But once she’s out the door, in the thumb goes, and at the door appears a tailor with giant scissors, who cuts off the boy’s thumbs. Lesson learned.
In 1884, German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann felt there weren’t any children’s stories up to moral snuff, so he wrote his own, called Der Struwwelpeter, which are about as twisted as you might expect from a 19th-century German psychiatrist. While a couple of the poems are innocent enough—a spacey kid just ends up mocked by some fish in “The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air”—others feature children burning to death or dying of starvation. It’s all pretty cute.
When Chicago printmaker Sanya Glisic discovered the book’s English translation (titled Struwwelpeter, or sometimes Shock-Headed Peter), she set out to lend new illustrations to Hoffmann’s grim rhymes. Born in Bosnia, her family moved to Serbia when she was five, and then Phoenix, Arizona, when she was ten. She describes the period as “absurd” and an introduction to that numinous zone where childhood and darker elements meet.
“It was just this really weird time in my life where I was traveling a lot,” says the 25-year-old. “I’ve been trying to think of why I’m so interested in dealing with material that deals with innocence, or loss of innocence. Part of me doesn’t want to poke at it too much, because I’m afraid if I did I might destroy something.”
The result of those explorations is a gorgeous new edition of the public-domain book of verse, handmade in a limited print run by Glisic at Chicago’s Spudnik Press. When I met Glisic at Star Lounge in Humboldt Park, she gingerly took out some hand-sewn pages, handling them with the care and exuberance of someone nearing the satisfying end of a major project. Glisic worked for months on the illustrations after being named a Spudnik Press artist-in-residence in fall 2010, a position that allows artists access to the printmaker’s tools and materials. Much of the display type in the book was hand-lettered, and Glisic’s intricate drawings play with the colors of children’s books, but in ominously muted tones. Though Glisic has made concert posters and various artist’s prints, this is her first book-length project.
“I don’t even want to think about how many screens I used,” she says. “But I wanted to experience the whole process of making a book. I love books and illustrations, and old stories, texts and folklore. I wanted to be part of that narrative and contribute my tiny piece.”
There is a certain vintage charm to both the way Glisic illustrates and the way the handmade pages feel in the reader’s hand. It’s both an homage and a revitalization of the original text, an update on the illustrations using almost the same technology as Hoffmann’s from 200 years ago. And though the subject matter comes from another time, Glisic reminds us that the subtext persists.
“These stories, I didn’t want to rewrite them or make them politically correct,” she says. “I really like that edge between adulthood and childhood, and I like working in that space. We never really leave that space, we have our childhood with us our whole lives.”
Glisic releases Struwwelpeter Thursday 10 at Quimby’s.