Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Read Ontario, with George A. Walker

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George A. Walker

Ontario boasts a wealth of fantastic writers and amazing stories, and this October and November the Ontario Book Publishers Organization is highlighting a selection of the province's finest writing from great Ontario publishers. There's no better time to “Read Ontario”!

Today we speak with George A. Walker, who has not only embraced a uniquely Ontario story in his latest book, but done so in a wildly creative way. The Life and Times of Conrad Black (The Porcupine's Quill) is a collection of 100 wordless woodcut images that tell the story of the dramatic fortunes of the one-time media baron.

Today George talks with Open Book about why Conrad Black fascinates us so much, working in wordless narratives and why he's been reading so much Leonard Cohen lately.

Visit a participating Read Ontario independent bookstore to get a copy of The Life and Times of Conrad Black, or click here for details on how you can enter to win 42 amazing Read Ontario books.

Visit the Open Book: Toronto and Open Book: Ontario websites over the next few weeks to hear from some of Ontario's most creative authors.

Read Ontario: George A. Walker

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Life and Times of Conrad Black.

George A. Walker:

The Life and Times of Conrad Black is a wordless narrative told in 100 wood engravings. The engravings chronicle the rise and fall of Black through the parade of images that surround and tell his story. It is a story of Black’s rise to wealth and power, and of how he has been portrayed by the media and by the larger cultural theatre in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. It is also a story of how we see, represent and often resent power and authority, acting as an object lesson in how to read images of a life, and interpret the meaning of the story not from what we’re told, but from what we see.


What drew you to Black as a subject? Was there anything in particular you hoped to convey about the man in this book, or do you prefer to leave the interpretation up to the reader?


I’ve worked in printing and publishing for over 20 years and the name Conrad Black has moved in these circles throughout my career. Black is one of the most outspoken and charismatic characters in the elusive one percent of people who make up the Establishment in Canada. He is a public person of international stature, at one time a media baron and still a man of great influence and wealth. I wondered what would happen to the public story of Conrad Black when text is removed and we are left with a visual narrative.

Interpretation is up to the reader. Once made, images have a life of their own, and like the written word, they are interpreted by the reader and transformed into a meaning that resonates with the story being presented.


Why did you choose a wordless approach to create this portrait of Black?


Images are a form of writing. They are like letterforms in that they are the communicating the same innate power that resides in words. Yet the sequence of images transcends the grammatical boundaries of the spoken word. Similar to a silent film or comic strip, we read pictures and they tell us stories.


What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities in working with wordless narrative?


The first challenge is determining how to make images of wealth and power. What symbols and signs reveal status and influence? How can I reveal anything about the complexities of Conrad Black if I do not have the flexibility of the written word?

One advantage reflected in the grammar of pictures is that they reveal the subtle messages contained not only in the body language of the protagonist, but also in the elements that exist outside of the frame the image itself. For instance, the image of the protagonist in front of a jury sets the stage for judgment, whereas the image of the protagonist with a celebrity implies connection and influence.

When writing words, the author risks that the words they use will be taken out of context; when writing in pictures, the author risks that the image will have no meaning for the reader. Finding meaning in art is never simply outside or inside the work, but rather in the ambiguous space in between.


100 woodcuts is an enormous undertaking. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of creating each of these images and putting together the book as a whole?


It’s true that it is a great deal of work. Before I begin, I must make all the blocks and size them so that they will print in my press. Each block is sanded to type high (.918”) and the surface is polished to a smooth finish. Then there are sketches, research, inking, engraving and then the proofing. A slip of the graver may mean the block is ruined and the process must be restarted. I made well over 100 blocks for The Life and Times of Conrad Black. Not all the images make it to the final stages. After I have all the blocks made, I then plan the printing of the limited edition book. I make a dummy book to work out the order of placement and then I begin the long hours of printing, proofing and arranging. Then comes designing the binding, collating and sewing the sheets and so on. Making books this way does take dedication and patience, but for me it’s a kind of meditation and rigour that has come from self-discipline, which I am constantly working on.


What were you reading and watching while working on this project? And now that you've completed it, what's next on your reading list?


While working on the project, I consulted a wide range of books, some of which acted as reference, some of which were used for source material in the story. Topics ranged from the life and troubles of Conrad Black (some of which Black suggested) to the concept of making meaning through images. I also read a lot of biographies — those about Black, but also those documenting the lives other men known for their power and influence, such as Roosevelt and Nixon.

Conrad Black, A Life in Progress
Conrad Black, A Matter of Principle
Peter C. Newman, Establishment Man
Steven Skurka, Tilted: The Trial of Conrad Black
Lambert M. Surhone, Mariam T. Tennoe, Susan F. Henssonow, United States v. Conrad Black
W. J. Thomas Mitchell, The Language of Images
Terence Wright, Visual Impact: Culture and the Meaning of Images

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes and Hannelore Heinemann Headley’s Blond China Doll: A Shanghai Interlude, 1939-1953.

Next on my reading list:

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers
Leonard Cohen, The Spice-box of Earth
Leonard Cohen, The Favorite Game
Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen


What are you working on now?


I am working on the Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook. It will have 80 wood engravings and I will print 80 books celebrating Cohen’s 80th birthday next year (2014).

George A. Walker is an award-winning wood engraver, book artist, teacher, author and illustrator who has been creating artwork and books and publishing at his private press since 1984. Walker’s popular courses in book arts and printmaking at the OCAD University in Toronto, where he is Associate Professor, have been running continuously since 1985. For over twenty years Walker has exhibited his wood engravings and limited edition books internationally. Walker has illustrated two hand-printed books written by author Neil Gaiman. Walker was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art for his contribution to the cultural area of Book Arts.

For more information about The Life and Times of Conrad Black please visit the The Porcupine's Quill website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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