Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Meaning in Motion

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In a recent issue of Canadian Children’s Book News, I came across an interview with celebrated Canadian children’s illustrator, Stéphane Jorisch. His characters, both human and animal, are quirky, expressive, intense, and full of intention. They catch the depth and seriousness of the worlds children inhabit, and are equally compelling for adults.

He makes some intriguing observations. “When you draw characters,” he says, “you don’t draw the outside of the character, you draw what the character is thinking. He starts to move—and the reason he starts to move is because we’re always thinking what we’re going to do next, so we’re always in a certain motion.”

This interest in movement is what leads him away from drawing models, which he finds contrived. “To me, if you want to really do a character in an expressive way, you have to not draw what you think they look like—you more or less have to draw them as they physically move.” That’s a fascinating prospect, when you think about it. You’re aiming not for what people look like but for how they respond—away from surface and toward the motion that expresses intention.

So maybe movement is where meaning settles. It’s a long way from the surface-obsessed culture we inhabit, but it does seem to hold true. Writing and drawing and music and dance all strive to recreate an experience of movement, to catch that exact place where time and space intersect. A dancer moves, a musician is buoyed up by a timeline, an artist leaves traces of his pen cutting across the surface of the page, a writer tracks characters and emotions that are later deciphered in real time.

This element of movement gives us a tactile experience of time, the most nebulous of dimensions, and allows us the thrill of linking up with others. Whether we’re in a crowded hall, a quiet gallery, or a solitary arm chair, we are pulled into community with the artists and with one another.

Jorisch claims that illustrators are like “very good musicians. Musicians take a little song and make it ‘wow’—so every note has music in it… Just like when you create characters, all the characters were thinking something when they were put together. They all have their little agendas. When you take all those little agendas out, the drawing just becomes average.”

This might be a particularly apt analogy for jazz musicians who often literally use “a little song”—think, for example, of Ella Fitzgerald transforming “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” into something like pure joy. Great players elevate “a little song” by allowing every rhythmic, melodic and harmonic gesture to pull forward or push backward or cut across the surface. It’s the texture of those many competing agendas (we might translate them musically as sincerity and irony and wit) that lifts an average “little song” to a whole new level.

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