Geoff Gehman | June 2012 | ICON
SKYLER STABIN SPENT APPROXIMATELY one week in her third year putting “acorn” before “Daddy,” “TV” and other words where nuts don’t usually fall. Her skill at growing trees of modifiers greatly amused her father Victor, a hyper-imaginative artist and dictionary lover who squirrels away scores of words almost too fantastic to exist. He decided to animate Skyler’s ABCs by creating an alliterative ABC book starting, naturally enough, with “A is for Anti-Gravity Acorn.”
What began as an entertaining exercise for Skyler and her younger sister, Arielle, is now an alphabetarium and an industry.
Stabin’s recently published Daedal Doodle (58 pp., $24.99) features 26 letters that manage to be animal, mineral, vegetable and architectural fable. Each character comes with a surreal illustration that doubles as a visual narrative. “Apperceptive Achatina,” for example, is accompanied by a drawing of a giant African snail staring into a mirror, conscious of its consciousness.
ICON readers have sampled some of these letters in Stabin’s “Alliteration of the Month” series. They’ve sampled some of these narratives in “NPR Unauthorized Cautionary Tales,” a serial of crazy yarns about Stabin’s crazy creatures written by his equally hyper-imaginative friends. For the next three months-and-change everyone can sample Stabin’s cosmic brain in an exhibit of his sketches, drawings and word lists for Daedal Doodle at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley.
Raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn and Jamaica Estates, Queens, Stabin, 58, works in a 150-year-old former wire-factory building in Jim Thorpe that he and his wife, Joan Morykin, restored into an arts complex and a restaurant called Flow, where farm to table specialties are served in a dining room with a view of a stream.
During a recent three-hour interview in his warehouse-like studio he revealed the many selves that he siphoned into Daedal Doodle, the many personalities braided as tightly as steel cables made on the premises for the Brooklyn Bridge. The graphic illustrator who created a super-powered comic-strip cover for KISS’s 1980 "Unmasked" album. The educator who this fall will lecture on his illuminated alliterative ABC book at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The nimble word omnivore, or lissome logophile, who eats dictionaries for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack.
The cancer survivor who tries to treat every day as his kids’ birthdays, remembering he was once diagnosed as sterile. The emotional ecologist who paints his children guided by, and guiding, endangered turtles. The inventive philosopher who internalized what his late inventor-philosopher father said when his son asked him about his 38th-birthday present: “Vic, every day I’m alive it’s your birthday.”
He was right; he died five months later.
“I owe my fascination with the dictionary and my love of words in general to an experience with an ex-girlfriend I like to call The Mean Girl. I was 26 and we were riding the subway. I asked her for the definition of as many as three words on a particular page I was reading. She made a charmless holier-than-thou comment about my lack of vocabulary, delivered in a dismissive way. She had unique psychic skills; half the impact of the comment was communicated with a roll of her eyes. Man, she really ripped me a new one. I was deracinated.
Now, I never thought I was stupid when it came to vocabulary. I just thought I was a dyslexic who focused on his art. I took this dictionary that my father had bought, put it on a shelf in my studio, and habitually referred to it. I still have it; it’s over there. [Walks to a lectern and opens Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged, Second Edition]. It was published in 1958—the year you [aka the interviewer,i.e., me] were born.
I retreated into the dictionary for safety and empowerment. When working (like most artists I know ), I listen to various national and local talk stations on the radio—WNYC, NPR and WBAI. Every time I heard a word on the radio I didn’t quite know I looked it up and wrote it down in my vocabulary book (one of those black and white school notebooks). Or I looked up and learned a word I didn’t know while I was reading. My goal was 300 common words people use but don’t know really what they mean. I realized that working 300 words seamlessly into your conversation, you can seem like the smartest person in the room.
At about the same time I started reading the dictionary I remember reading in a book of American idioms that the average person uses about a 240-word vocabulary—a shockingly low number. The problem I had with using my newly found vocabulary power was wondering when I was being understood, because most people don’t want to ask the definition of an unfamiliar word. I was once at a party having a conversation with someone and asked him what a particular word meant. With faux politeness he asked if English was my second language. I would pay to remember the word I asked—the guy was an asshole.
You know, certain things are thrown at you and they become assets. Some people think they’re counter-intuitive, but to you they’re noble. So I have to thank The Mean Girl, even though she was one of the meanest people I’ve ever had the misfortune, and fortune, to have known. To this day it seems I thrive on criticism.
I get my words from pretty much anywhere and everywhere—not just the dictionary. Some just come out of the ether. Take ‘acorn.’ I think Skyler was obsessed with the word ‘acorn’ because she was obsessed with acorns for a week or so. At the time that’s what she saw when she looked down on the ground—I mean, when you’re three you’re height-challenged and acorns are easy to see, right?
I was listening to Charlie Rose’s interview show and one of his guests said: ‘Oh, that would be just a mere simulacrum.’ And I thought to myself: Oh, how pompous. That said, I wound up using it in the ABC book. I made it part of ‘Seraphim’s Simulacrum.’ The seraphim is for my kids, because they’re my little angels.
A lot of people say my artwork reminds them of the artwork of Dr. Seuss, M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali. I don’t really know Dr. Seuss, but I know the other guys very, very well. Let’s just say I slept with Dali and Escher. That Dali snores and his mustache tickles me. Or Escher snores and his mustache tickles me.
Another influence is Lord Buckley (1906-1960; extremely popular scat-singing poet; extremely influential cool-cat aristocrat). He always spoke with a distinctive beat [clicks fingers]. So I thought of words that seemed cool, that Lord Buckley would have enjoyed saying. Like ‘Eohippus’s Epizoon.’ Or ‘Bifoliated Bonito.’ Words that are just obtuse enough to be hip, especially when said with Buckley’s metering.
The alliteration isn’t as important as the beat. When I started creating the book, I really didn’t think of alliterations. I thought the narrative was going to come out of two rhyming, cool-sounding words. When I came up with ‘Anti-Gravity Acorn,’ for example, I heard some music playing in my head; I heard Lord Buckley. Sometimes I choose three words. Sometimes there are five words because they’re so good you have to go with the flow.
People kept telling me: You know, these characters are so intriguing, you should make stories for them. And that’s how the ‘NPR Unauthorized Cautionary Tales’ series began. Drawing on my personal habits, the creatures in the stories go through their day, somehow interacting with the info coming out of the radio. I wrote the first three stories and showed them to Trina, the ICON Czarina. Andy Lanset from WNYC wrote a story and Marshall Arisman wrote this month’s piece.
The story in the June issue, written by Arisman, revolves around Eohippus’ Epizoon. It involves exploding cans of spaghetti and Bernie Madoff. The protagonist weaves a path of mayhem wherever he goes and becomes a stockbroker, so it has a happy ending.
Some of the words I use turn out to have lives of their own, lives far beyond my control. Take ‘gubbins,’ for instance. It’s an English word that means ‘gadget,’ or ‘gizmo.’ Or so I thought until some English guy walks into the gallery here and sees the word and tells me: ‘You’re not using it right. It really means a feckless idiot.’ Same with ‘nimrod.’ You would think it means ‘knucklehead,’ but it really means ‘hunter.’ Go figure.
I live in mortal fear of people asking me for definitions of really difficult words. I’d be terrified if somebody asked: ‘What does xenium mean?’ or ‘What does nucivorous mean?’ (Words from my book, no less.) I’d better watch out. I may be stalked by word guys the way I was stalked by KISS fans at KISS conventions.
[We move from Stabin’s studio to his next-door gallery complex. First stop is a room of illuminated alliterative alphabet letters conceived by students at Panther Valley High School in Lansford, Pa. Taught by Stabin and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the project has fanciful entries ranging from ‘Dawdling Dik-dik’ to‘Incontinent Impala.’]
The idea is letting kids know how easy it is to come up with ideas if they use words. Reading the dictionary seeds the imagination—words will become pictures. Like the butterfly wing that created a storm.
One of my role models is [artist] Chuck Close, who is comfortable with being out on a limb, with his work not fitting into any recognizable mold. Being out on a limb is a little lonely for a while, but once you connect to the other branches, you connect for good. When I was an illustrator, I always wanted something I could stick with, and to.
[We visit a room of sketches, drawings and word lists for Daedal Doodle. It’s a kind of command center for Stabin’s space-shuttle brain].
“Here’s the first drawing I did for the book [‘Zooid Zeppelin Zygote’]. I doodled it on the back of a children’s menu in a sports bar at the Chelsea Piers [in Manhattan]. At the time I was showing Jim Thorpe friends around New York and all they wanted to do was watch the Super Bowl.
I’m a doodler like my father. He would doodle gear trains and osmotic pressure devices on napkins. Here’s one of his inventions [Points to his dad’s circa 1972 ‘Osmometer#3’]. Looks like something out of ‘Flash Gordon,’ doesn’t it?
How does my art fit into my legacy? Well, my kids do not want me to sell any of the paintings with them in them. They want to keep the paintings for themselves. They understand mortality, that when I’m gone, the paintings are theirs. You know, I had a health ordeal when I was 44. I learned I had a tumor the size of an orange next to my heart. I was given a 50 percent of living. I had two years of chemo and steroids. During that time I developed anemia and brain fog. I was told that I could never have kids. Then, after all the treatments, my first wife left me. I met Joan five days later, asked her to marry me four months after that, and then learned she was pregnant when I thought I was sterile.
After I got over my ordeal I started doing my own work. Ever since the kids were born, they’ve been the focus of my art because nothing has moved me as much as they do. Nothing is more real than they are.
My kids are animating my life. Yet to them it’s pretty much standard operating procedure. You know, I said to them: ‘Your daddy is going to be on the cover of ICON.’ And they’re in the throes of a sugar rush and all they want to do is get high on sweets. So all they could say is: ‘I want candy!’”
Daedal Doodle: An Extraordinary Journey Through the Alphabet, drawings by Victor Stabin, June 3-September 9, Allentown
Art Museum, 31 N. 5th Street (between Linden and Hamilton streets), Allentown.