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Step inside Edward Gorey's weird, beautiful world

Poor Basil. He was assaulted by bears. And Kate? She was struck by an ax.

Xerxes was devoured by mice, Victor was squashed by a train, and little Neville met what may be the most painful and terrible fate of all. He died of ennui.

Demented and delightful, spooky and fun: Welcome to the world of Edward Gorey.

The world of the writer-illustrator exists right now at the Loyola University Museum of Art, a gloriously vibrant, colorful and thought-provoking experience. The exhibition is actually two shows in one ("Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey" and "G is for Gorey — C is for Chicago: The Collection of Thomas Michalak") and is the first major exhibition of the Chicago-born and -raised Gorey. Dozens of examples of his work — posters, theatrical costume designs, illustrated envelopes, books and book covers, sketches — are handsomely arranged in two rooms of LUMA, 820 N. Michigan Ave. This is artfully embellished by of the work of Gorey-influenced Chicago artist Kenneth Gerleve, whose installation is titled "Summerland: A Ghost Story."

Kelsey Skutnick was leaving the gallery, seemingly dancing on air.

"To see (Gorey's) work today in person, I can honestly say, was life-changing," she said.

She is in her third year at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, majoring in illustration.

"Maurice Sendak, Norman Rockwell and Gorey especially have been my top influences as an artist," she said. "My parents were big Gorey fans, so I grew up with his art. My pride and glory is my poster of 'The Gashlycrumb Tinies.' It's hanging in my room in Rochester, and to see five of the original drawings today was breathtaking, awe-inspiring, out-of-this-world."

That book, published in 1963, tells the tale of 26 children (each representing a letter of the alphabet) and their untimely deaths in rhyming couplets, accompanied by the author's distinctive black-and-white illustrations: The book gives us "G is for George smothered under a rug" and "H is for Hector done in by a thug."

Skutnick continued: "I hope it's not cliche to say he's my hero. To see his work was equivalent of meeting him in person. It was a bit eerie for me, for I saw so many relations between his process and mine: his sketchbooks, even his handwriting."

Gorey began his life in Chicago. Born in 1925, he attended school in Wilmette and graduated from Francis W. Parker School in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. He spent a bit of time at the School of the Art Institute before joining the Army in 1943. After the war, he went to Harvard and then began a career that involved books, theater, television and any other world that struck his humorous, serious fancy. He was a man of limitless curiosity and distinctive talent, and he died in 2000.

Skutnick was unable to see another element of the Gorey exhibit, a puppet show titled "The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction" that takes place Saturdays at 2 and 4 p.m. To miss this show would be akin to visiting the Louvre and missing the Mona Lisa, going to the Art Institute and not seeing "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." "The Vinegar Works" is a must-see masterpiece.

"We thought we might have a hit on our hands with Gorey," says Pamela Ambrose, the university's director of cultural affairs. "And there were so many possible programs we could do in association with it. Because Gorey had written puppet shows, I thought, how wonderful if we could have one."

And so they do, thanks to the internationally known Blair Thomas, a genius (and I never use that word lightly) who adapted, designed and directs this show. It stars puppets, of course — tiny ones — but also three talented and delightful human beings, onstage and off: Joe Mazza, an exuberant master of ceremonies and puppeteer; Lizi Breit, who operates the puppets and plays violin; and Tyler Culligan, who works the puppets and plays guitar. The music was created by one of the world's greatest living songwriters, our own Michael Smith.

Mazza, who is also a writer and photographer, has been involved with puppets since childhood, while Breit and Culligan discovered the art form when they both enrolled in a puppetry class at the School of the Art Institute. She was there focusing on print-making. He was there studying sculpture. They are now both part of the puppet world, an increasingly artistic and creative realm that is far from the images that come to many minds with the word "puppet": Punch and Judy; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Garfield Goose; and even the Muppets.

"Puppetry is such a great way of getting to the truth in a way that can't be done with live actors," says Mazza.

The show is but 30 minutes long, and is free with the modest admission price to the museum ($8, $6 for seniors and free for those younger than 18; it's free for all on Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays).

Breit has long been a Gorey fan and says it has been important "that in translating his work into a live experience we stayed true to his sense of humor."

This Gorey extravaganza has been attracting large crowds and has spawned special projects and events (luc.edu/luma).

One of those is "Goreyesque," an online literary journal (goreyesque.com) featuring stories, poems and artwork inspired by Gorey.

"The idea was born of the exhibitions at LUMA," says editor-in-chief Todd Summar. "We wanted to create a forum for work that celebrates his influence across all genres, featuring up-and-coming artists and writers alongside seasoned professionals."

On April 29 "Goreyesque" is hosting a reading at LUMA featuring local novelists Joe Meno and Adam McOmber, and some of the others whose work has been featured on the site.

Gorey once said, "Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable."

Well, I've tried. Now go see the shows.

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

rkogan@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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