Baltimore City

Hampden-based artist's work displayed in new Poe book

When Rockport Publishers was looking for an illustrator last year for a book in their series, Classics Reimagined, they called Hampden-based illustrator and Cockeysville resident David Plunkert.

They wanted to know if he would be interested in illustrating "Frankenstein," Plunkert said, "which I very much was."


But a week or two later, the project changed: Now they wanted illustrations for the gothic stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Plunkert, who lives with Joyce Hesselberth, his wife and fellow artist, and their three children, co-founded Spur, a design firm with six employees, where he has created posters for the Theatre Project, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Maryland Humanities Council, as well as artwork for The New York Times and posters and videos for the band They Might Be Giants.


Both Plunkert and Hesselberth, an editorial illustrator and children's book illustrator, are on MICA's faculty.

"Initially I was a little sad about it," Plunkert said about the change in assignment. But he was also quite interested in Poe, whom he considered the better writer and one for whom few illustrations had previously been done.

Plunkert looked forward to doing all the illustrations for the 12 stories and 12 poems that were to appear in the book, well-known works such as "The Raven" and "The Masque of the Red Death."

In fact, "The Masque" inspired the cover for the book - "Edgar Allan Poe: Stories and Poems" - a classic portrait of Poe overlaid with a wood-cut red mask, the first illustration for the book. He was given a week to design the cover so it would be ready for the marketing department.

It's a design that thrilled Regina Grenier, creative director for Rockport, who called it "impactful."

"It makes you want to pick up the book," she said. "We're so thrilled that he did the book."

"He just has that ability to be eerie and spooky but alluring," Grenier said. "It's also kind of beautiful."

The Poe collection is the fourth in Rockport's series — all released this fall. They include "The Wizard of Oz," "Grimm's Fairy Tales" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," all illustrated "by world class artists," according to the publisher's website,


Plunkert decided early on he wouldn't take a literal approach to illustrating Poe's work. "I wanted to illustrate a symbol or an idea as opposed to a scene, taking what's familiar about Poe and transforming it into something new," he said.

He employed a style of collage and mixed media with some pieces inspired by woodcut art and tombstones. He designed the entire book from the typography to the faint pattern used under the text on each page.

There was one technical challenge. Because there are plans to translate the book, he had to keep color illustrations to single pages, so that the text pages could be reproduced with only black ink.

Plunkert read and re-read Poe's stories, searching for inspiration.

"The themes and ideas are tough to land on," he said.

He wanted more than an obvious illustration for the poem "The Raven."


"He's creating an atmosphere where nothing is happening," Plunkert said. For such a dark poem, filled with darkness, perhaps death, he chose to place the image of the raven over the portrait of a man. There's a smaller image of the raven atop the bust of Pallas which Poe mentions in the poem as well.

"The Purloined Letter" proved to have too many words and too little action for Plunkert to illustrate.

"I really couldn't find anything to land on," he said. While he considered that unfortunate, he turned to Poe's second detective story, featuring C. Auguste Dupin, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," to illustrate.

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Completing the book took nearly a year. Offered the project in September 2013, he got to work reading the stories to decide which to illustrate.

"It really started coming together at the beginning of 2014," Plunkert said.

From January through April, he produced nearly 100 pieces of art, some 50 full-page color illustrations as well as smaller images, icons and decorative borders, and page and book design. With such a big project and weeks to work on it, Plunkert said there were days when he worked on three illustrations at a time. Design assistant Andrea Kalfas provided her own creative design skills and set type for the book.


"I would have liked more art in it," Plunkert added.

May was spent proofing the final book and publication was set for November.

Now, Plunkert has begun book signings. He signed books recently at the B&O Railroad Museum and the Poe House, both in Baltimore, and hopes to sign books at Poe's other homes around the country in the coming weeks.

Closer to home, he will sign books Wednesday, Dec. 17, at at his studio at Spur Design, 3504 Ash Street in Hampden, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. For details, go to Spur's Facebook page: