10 Famous Creators’ Secret Obsessions and Little-Known Talents
Feynman’s sketches, Monroe’s poetry, Plath’s drawings, Magritte’s album art, and more.
By Maria Popova
A recent piece on director David Lynch’s avant-garde visual art sounded the dot-connecting bell and sent me digging through the Brain Pickings archives for more examples of artists famous in one medium or genre who created little-known but wonderful art in another — a living testament to creativity’s medium-blind nature. Here are ten favorite surprises.
RICHARD FEYNMAN’S SKETCHES
Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman — champion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations, bongo player — was a surprisingly gifted semi-secret artist. He started drawing at the age of 44, shortly after developing the visual language for his famous Feynman diagrams, after a series of amicable arguments about art vs. science with his artist-friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian — the same friend to whom Feynman’s timeless ode to a flower was in response. Eventually, the two agreed that they’d exchange lessons in art and science on alternate Sundays. Feynman went on to draw — everything from portraits of other prominent physicists and his children to sketches of strippers and very, very many female nudes — until the end of his life. His drawings are collected in The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character (public library), edited by his daughter Michelle.
In an introductory essay titled But Is It Art?, Feynman recounts his arrangement with Jerry and observes the intersection of art and science:
I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.
See more here.
Did you ever begin Ulysses? Did you ever finish it? Marilyn Monroe did both. She took great pains to be photographed reading or holding a book — insistence born not out of vain affectation but of a genuine love of literature. Her personal library contained four hundred books, including classics like Dostoyevsky and Milton, and modern staples like Hemingway and Kerouac. While she wasn’t shooting, she was taking literature and history night classes at UCLA. And yet, the public image of a breezy, bubbly blonde endures as a caricature of Monroe’s character, standing in stark contrast with whatever deep-seated demons led her to take her own life.
But her private poetry — fragmentary, poem-like texts scribbled in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, published for the first time in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters (public library) — reveals a complex, sensitive being who peered deeply into her own psyche and thought intensely about the world and other people. What these texts bespeak, above all, is the tragic disconnect between a highly visible public persona and a highly vulnerable private person, misunderstood by the world, longing to be truly seen.
Only parts of us will ever
onlyparts of others —
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is
understood bywithin another’s knowing acceptable toso one
the other — therefore
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best
thoughperhaps it could make
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.
I am of both of your directions
Somehow remaining hanging downward
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind — I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a painting
s— ah life they
have cheated you
See more here.
ANDY WARHOL’S CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATIONS
Andy Warhol may be one of only seven artists in the world to have ever sold a canvas for $100 million, but you might be able to own “a Warhol” for about $5 — that is, if you can get your hands on a used copy of one of the children’s books he illustrated in the late 1950s, while making a living designing book covers and illustrating dry business books as one of Doubleday’s freelance artists. Shortly before halting his love affair with the corporate world in fear of compromising his flirtations with the art world, he illustrated six stories for the classic Best In Children’s Books series, including “The Little Red Hen” in 1958 and “Card Games Are Fun” in 1959.
RENÉ MAGRITTE’S ALBUM COVERS
Legendary Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte had a little-known early commercial career. Young Magritte made rent by working as a draughtsman at a wallpaper factory and designing graphic ephemera, among which were some 40 sheet music covers he produced in the 1920s, nearly two decades before Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover as we know it today.
See more here.
DR. SEUSS’S WWII PROPAGANDA
Dr. Seuss may be best-remembered for his irreverent children’s rhymes and the timeless prescriptions for living embedded in them, but he was also a prolific maker of subversive secret art and the auteur of a naughty book for adults. Though his children’s books have already been shown to brim with subtle political propaganda, during WWII, he lent his creative talents to far more explicit, adult-focused wartime propaganda when he joined the New York daily newspaper PM as a political cartoonist. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel (public library) collects 200 of Geisel’s black-and-white illustrations, but more than half of his editorial cartoons were never previously made publicly available.
See more here.
PATTI SMITH’S POETRY
Patti Smith is a modern-day creative muse of rare eclectic brilliance. The Coral Sea (public library) collects her breathtaking prose poems exorcising the loss of her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:
All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.
Here is an exclusive recording of Smith reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:
Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.
See more, including Smith’s original handwritten manuscripts, here.
J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S DRAWINGS
In October of 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of what would become one of the most celebrated fantasy books of all time. In September of the following year, The Hobbit made its debut, with 20 or so original drawings, two maps, and a cover painting by Tolkien himself. But it turns out the author created more than 100 illustrations, recently uncovered amidst Tolkien’s papers, digitized by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and released in Art of the Hobbit — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors, as well as conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.
See more here.
JIM HENSON’S EXPERIMENTAL FILM
The nature and mystery of time is a subject of long–running scientific fascination, but what about its subjective, abstract nature? In 1964, exactly a decade after creating his original Muppets for Sesame Street predecessor Sam + Friends, Jim Henson wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a short experimental film titled Time Piece, exploring in a visceral way the effect time-keeping has on all of us. It premiered on May 6, 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966.
Originally featured here.
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S GRAPHIC DESIGN
Frank Lloyd Wright is commonly regarded as the most influential architect in modern history, but despite his enormous cultural recognition, the full extent of his contribution to design — posters, brochures, typography, murals, book and magazine covers — remains relatively obscure. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist (public library), Penny Fowler examines Wright’s ingenious and bold graphic work — his covers for Liberty (some of which were so radical that the magazine rejected them), his mural designs for Midway Gardens, his photographic experiments, his hand-drawn typographical studies, the jacket designs for his own publications, including The House Beautiful and An Autobiography, and a wealth more.
From his childhood encounter with Friedrich Froebel’s educational building blocks at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to his experiments with geometric designs long before the Mondrian age to his obsession with the woodblock art of Old Japan, Fowler traces Wright’s inspirations, influences, and singular style as his work dances across aesthetic movements like Bauhaus, Japanisme, Arts and Crafts, and De Stijl.
See more here.
SYLVIA PLATH’S DRAWINGS
Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — had a few creative surprises up her sleeve. In addition to her little-known artist and children’s books, she was also a strikingly adroit artist. The pen and ink drawings collected in Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (public library) capture the literary icon’s “deepest source of inspiration”: art. They reveal Plath’s exceptional attention to detail and her diverse yet introspective curiosity about the world, from nature to architecture, from intimacy to public life.
See more here.
Published July 29, 2013