Toni Morrison’s Beloved is widely considered the greatest of all American novels published in last quarter of the 20th century, but, until now, it has never been released as an illustrated edition — this despite the effortless magic with which Morrison invokes (or provokes) her images of postbellum black life. Thankfully, The Folio Society has now released a moving, brilliantly illustrated version of Beloved, complete with an introduction by Russell Banks. Morrison chose Banks to write about the novel, and she also selected the novel’s gifted illustrator, Joe Morse, whose work you can see below. Flavorwire talked with Mr. Morse about his approach illustrating Morrison’s masterpiece.
FW: The project obviously comes from a deep respect and admiration both for Beloved and Toni Morrison’s broader oeuvre. Can you talk about your relationship to her work and how this project came about?
JM: There are images you make sometimes that become an important leap forward. In January of 1998, I illustrated a Washington Post book review of Toni Morrison’s Paradise. Her writing resonated with me as a visual artist. As she said in an interview, “The author’s job is to make spaces for the reader to enter.” And through the image I made, in response to her words, I came to see that as one of my goals in making art.
When I was contacted by The Folio Society in early 2014 to illustrate Beloved, I truly had to read the email twice. I have worked on many major projects during my career, but this was beyond belief. My UK agent Kit Killington at KillingtonArts had presented my work to FS in the past, and, recently, I have worked on more book projects.
But there was one little matter first… I was told that I needed to create an image for Ms. Morrison’s approval to move forward as the artist to work on the book. I had read Beloved in the past, so I read it again and again. I researched the time period, developed character sketches, noted passages that I could visualize, and I decided on an image that, after the acceptance of Toni Morrison, is now the frontispiece of the illustrated edition of Beloved.
FW: I love the way Folio titles the illustrations with short passages from the text. How do you go about choosing the scenes you would like to illustrate?
JM: When I work with a text, I look for the visual images embedded in the words that will support the narrative. I try to build a thread from image to image so that they belong together with the text, rather than appear dropped in like candy. But then there is Beloved: a story based on fact, spun through with history, poetry, horror, love, loss, and a ghost. It can be read on so many levels: how was I supposed to express it in nine paintings? I looked for the threads a great storyteller leaves for the reader, and where they converge to be woven together. There are also beautifully written visual passages in Beloved that should remain in the reader’s imagination and not be defined by my brush.
My work is figurative and graphic, with the gesture or form of the body creating it’s own physical typography and message. In the book, the characters are shaped by their personal histories and their overlapping relationship to the central figure of Sethe. It soon became clear to me that the images should focus on the strength I could bring to the project, expressing characters at the point when everything changes for them, as they drive or are driven by the narrative.
The representation of slavery and its physical and psychological effects can prove difficult terrain. The way you choose to portray it, for instance in the frontis, where we see the “sculpture [Sethe’s] back had become,” is stunning. Can you talk about how you negotiated this representation?
JM: In Beloved, the sadistic whipping the pregnant Sethe suffers tears her back into the shape of a chokecherry tree, as described by the character Amy Denver. This is the tree that sits inside the O of Beloved on the title page and in red on the binding.
At the point of the story depicted, we are introduced to how Sethe and Paul D. know each other, and we are given glimpses into the horror that they escaped. My image is further informed by the novel’s story of their survival over the intervening 18 years and the cost to each of them. I wanted Sethe to be looking off as she masks her pain by looking away from her past, and Paul D. as leaning in, falling into his desires and at the same time awakening the past Sethe has worked so hard to forget.
FW: What are you working on next?
JM: I am presently working on editorial projects, including a book cover series for pre-teens. And I am hard at work on an exhibition of personal paintings to be shown in the UK.