Tunnel Books and Peep-Shows

I see story everywhere. A shopping bag hangs on an iron hook at my studio door. There’s a story in that bag, I’m sure of it, with its Metropolitan Museum print of a cat. Beside the bag, there hangs a pair of witch’s boots. Above that, a copy of a placard that describes the best method of identifying and executing witches. I hung them in that particular orientation because they tell a story – the witch that got away, the cat on the canvas bag, her familiar who came to her rescue when she was thrown in the river for detection. I think that particular witch, the one who owned the witch’s boots, could swim. She dove down, underwater, and came up down river. It was the longest she had ever held her breath. When she regained her strength enough to climb ashore, she tucked herself under a rotten log and her cat helped further conceal her by raking leaves over her feet, the only part of her still exposed.

That could be true. Could be. Who is to say otherwise?

So while my world may look higgeldy piggeldy, it’s actually very intentional. I’ve always been drawn to books. Mind you, I was no great reader as a child. In fact, I was a master at covering up my illiteracy until it could not be concealed. Then I learned to read. I was… maybe twelve years old? But before I could read with comprehension, I loved books for their stories that could be interpreted through their pictures. I was a master at faking it.

One of my favorite books as an illiterate child was an old encyclopedia set at my babysitter’s house. In one of the books was a layered transparency of the anatomy of a frog and another book that housed the anatomy of a man. The first transparency was of the outside of the frog, but as you peeled back the layers of transparency, you saw the frog’s musculature, then its internal organs, then its skeleton. Around the same time, I must have heard the story of the Princess and the Frog. (I’m sure I had not read it, illiterate child, that I was.) If you took the transparencies of one book (the frog) and placed them over the transparency of the other book (the man) it just did not add up that the frog might actually be a Prince, transformed by an evil curse. It did make me perhaps a little more conscientious about my treatment of the frogs I caught.

More recently, I was introduced to the world of Tunnel Books. Tunnel Books are books that have been altered from their original purpose into a story of sorts, told through the images of its pages, minus the text.

Dating back to the mid-1800s, Tunnel Books, originally called peep shows, allowed the viewer into an alternative world of wonder. There, objects and art could be repurposed to tell a different story, and no, they were not all lewd in nature. Some were historical, or fantastical. Almost all of the early ones were miniature stage sets with characters that could be moved about, like a puppet theater. Some were inside boxes or employed mirrors to distort perception of the size of the box’s interior.

Last week, I started a stop-action animation. I thought it would be filmed in the old style, one frame at a time with incremental movements, but now, I’m not sure. The animation, in many ways, limits the viewer to my interpretation. Maybe, what I was creating, is best served as a Tunnel Book, a peep-show into the world of these characters. There is a witch, a handsome realtor, and a creepy old house. Someone’s going to be turned into a frog. Well, that is, if the viewer interprets it in that way. I guess I’ll get to work on that peepshow. On another level, I guess it’s a peepshow into the way my brain works. Eww. It’s not pretty.

In the meantime, I hope you decide to make some art… and read a book! Maybe you’ll do both… with a tunnel book.

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