Interview: Irwin Terry

We were surprised in the fall of 2008 to discover Goreyana, a blog detailing one person's collection of artwork by author and illustrator Edward Gorey.  We were even more surprised when a few years later that blog began a series of posts highlighting the artwork Gorey created for the books by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland.   Irwin Terry is the main behind Goreyana as well as the co-owner of Century Studios, a stained glass studio in St. Paul, Minnesota where he and partner Bill Campbell specialize in the creation of museum quality reproductions of Tiffany Lamps.  Raised in Wisconsin (hey - Lewis Barnavelt’s old stomping grounds!), Terry attended college at the Philadelphia College of Art, and completed his BFA at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design.  Terry and Campbell collect children’s literature and original illustration artwork, with a special emphasis on Edward Gorey, the Oz book series, and illustrator John R. Neill.

This is the first in a series of interviews with Irwin.

How and when did you first become aware of Edward Gorey and what’s kept your interest all these years?

I was first became aware of Edward Gorey’s work during my freshman semester at art college in Philadelphia. His work so interested me that I asked my parents for a copy of Amphigorey for Christmas. It was love at first sight, and my feelings for his work have grown stronger every year since then. There is not a part of my life or a room in my home that does not have something Gorey in it.  I pass framed artwork first thing in the morning, see theatrical posters in the bathroom, have coffee in a Gorey designed mug, and so on. A friend recently asked me, "Do you still look, actually look at the artwork every day?"  The answer is yes, and in fact I move/rotate artwork frequently so that out of the way pieces are brought to the more well traveled areas of my home.

Which books of Gorey’s are your favorites, and why?

My two favorite books are The Epiplectic Bicycle and The Untitled Book. With Bicycle, Gorey created the perfect blend of words and pictures. The prose is spare, disjointed, humorous and makes you think while you are laughing. It is absurdist writing at its finest – my favorite line is, “It was too dark to hear anything.” The illustrations in this book are some of Gorey’s finest.

In Untitled, Gorey once again combines his love of language and his considerable talent for drawing in the most spectacular way. Each illustration was completely hand drawn without the use of photographic assistance, and yet every illustration shows exactly the same scene with characters that come and go like a silent movie or stage set. While characters come and go on each page, Gorey recreated the intricate setting for every drawing in the book with sky, bricks and foliage, all of which is meticulously crosshatched within an inch of its life. The text of the book consists of nonsense words that just “work”. To fully appreciate this book, it must be read aloud in the company of friends, preferably after a cocktail or two.

What is the most quintessential Gorey illustration you’ve ever seen?

Hard to answer, but probably "Blue Urns", which is in my collection. It is a piece that was created for Gorey’s 1974 Graham Gallery Exhibition and it combines, in one piece of art, everything that Gorey could achieve in his work. It tells a story without words, has fantastic creatures and urns, features a child in a potentially menacing situation, is fantastically detailed, and is one of the strongest color pieces he created.

What led you to collect his artwork?

Being trained as a visual artist, I am always interested in seeing and owning original art which interests me. With Gorey’s work, there is nothing like seeing an original in person. Even the best reproductions do not have the same presence as the original. Original Edward Gorey drawings are “objects of desire” - they get under your skin and into your system. Even minor drawings get my heart racing, turning me into a fanatic.  His work is fantastic when printed, but is even better in person. Lines become mere wisps on a page. Pencil lines are sometimes evident. Even mistakes, corrections and changes can be seen on the originals.

What was the first piece you collected? The latest? How many individual works do you own?

I purchased my first piece of original artwork in 1985. It is an unused logo design for Mystery! on PBS. It features the bust of a mummified skeleton against a dark background. A tissue overlay indicates the wording, “Now Appearing on Mystery!” that was to have appeared against the dark background.  In the past year or so, I have been lucky enough to add several pieces of art to my collection. The difficulty of finding pieces and being able to afford them can be equally daunting.  I have over 40 original drawings and watercolors currently in my collection. I also have a large number of original etchings, prints and hand colored books by Mr. Gorey.

What are some of your favorite Gorey pieces in your collection?

For artwork, it is the Blue Urns and the frontis illustration from The Chessmen of Doom. I have other pieces I enjoy just as much, but I would grab those two pieces if the house was on fire.

Any tips to others on how they can start their own collection?

Start saving up and keep your eyes open! Pieces appear infrequently, but they do turn up online, at auction houses, at high end book dealers, and at book fairs. Offered pieces of art usually get snapped up fairly quickly, so be ready to make up your mind without hesitation!

How has the internet simplified collecting – or has it?

The internet is deceptive and tricky. On one hand it makes more available to a collector on a daily basis. This must be tempered with the false illusion it creates that something is not as rare as it first appears because you found it online. Each piece of artwork is a one of a kind object, so just because you may have found one or two online doesn’t make them less scarce – there is only one.  Bellairs books are easier to find online, but are still fairly uncommon in fine condition (not ex-library). Seeing a piece on the internet and for sale at online auction sites makes things seems more common than they really are. Another challenge with internet sales is often the seller does not really know much of anything about the item they are offering, so you have to be careful and educated to find the deals and avoid the pitfalls.

If money was no objection, what item would you love to have in your collection?

There are too many to discuss!  Everyone has a collectible Holy Grail, and I have several.

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