Evanston-born surrealist and author, Audrey Niffenegger, has transformed the world of print. From drawing and etching to writing novels and ballets, she channels her gift of storytelling across medias.
The Chicago author has a devoted following of fans of her novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, but her ability to imagine a darker set of characters in her story, The Three Incestuous Sisters, attracted the attention of London choreographers, David Drew and Wayne McGregor. They first proposed that Niffenegger translate the play to a ballet for the Royal Ballet, but McGregor inspired her to pursue a different story.
Niffenegger was immersed head first into the world of ballet, a completely new genre for the writer. Being that ballets often stem from fairy tales, she was prompted to write a provocative new story of transformation for the stage; thus Raven Girl was born.
Raven Girl, published in 2013, was written and illustrated by Niffenegger. A girl is born to a postman father and raven mother. She has an unending feeling that inside of her she is a raven and that is who she is truly meant to be. To physically become a raven, she sets out to find a surgeon to perform such an extraordinary task. She succeeds in her search and in the end, he provides her wings.
The metamorphosis was accompanied by Niffenegger’s aquatint etchings in gray muted tones with great attention to intricacy of the raven wings. Her color choice was not schematic, but strategically selected to coincide with the tone of each moment in the story.
The unusual plot idea sparked from an article she read in Harper’s about a plastic surgeon named Doctor Daedalus, who wanted to perform oddly radical surgeries to consensual patients and simply could not understand why he was prohibited by ethics.
McGregor, greatly interested in science and anatomy, was immediately enthusiastic about her concept of incorporating extreme surgery into the fairy tale.
Following an oft themed tradition of ballet, she chose a bird as the symbol of her journey. “There is a long history of ballets centered around birds and many are concerned with transformation,” she said.
She then defied ballet tradition by granting Raven Girl a happy ending. She says that a majority of ballets end in tragedy for women and she did not want that for her heroine.
The identity crisis Raven Girl experiences throughout the story is an important statement to the community. “The idea of the girl feeling as though her outside does not reflect her inside echoes transgenderism,” she says.
Contrary to the use of the swan in the famous ballet, the raven is not a symbol of beauty and grace. Niffenegger says, “They are very large and smart and span much of history, with connotations of being wise and timeless. They represent attributes like memory.”
She does, however, find humor in her choice of creature. She laughs and says, “I know a lot of people think of ravens as dark and spooky, so I did like the idea that this lovely young girl aspired to be that.”
Storytelling is entirely prevalent in her life and artistic expression. Not all her pieces are created to supplement a story, but they all emote a narrative quality.
She attributes her artistic vision to literature. She says, “A lot of what I do is inspired by what I’ve read. I come up with them, but my imagination is ultimately seeded from books. “
She partnered with the talented designer and bookbinder Trisha Hammer of Sherwin Beach Press to create an adapted version of the work, Field Guide of Poisonous Plants (1901). The two were intrigued by the Guide’s warnings against consumption of fatal plants and the gory images of people doing exactly that.
The original idea was to recreate a modern version in an Edward Gorey fashion, the style of pen-and-ink illustrations emoting unsettling narratives made famous by Gorey in the mid-to late 1900s.
To illustrate the new poisonous plant guide, Niffenegger invented the character of Prudence. The young girl starves herself into a coma and is consistently visited by a skeleton from another cemetery, offering invitations to large, extravagant feasts. Prudence attends, but never once eats. This pattern continues until she finally indulges in one sip of wine, crafted from poisonous plants, and she dies.
Niffenegger illustrated the story using watercolors and ink on coated handmade paper. Hammer hand bound the story within a modified, shortened version of the original text Field Guide, using a fabric-covered case that drops away to expose the sewing and non-adhesive binding. It is encased in a box of the same fabric.
Niffenegger’s love for books is inherent. In 1994, she opened the Center for Book and Paper at Columbia College Chicago to offer students the opportunity to learn and develop print and bookmaking skills.
She says there was a lot of people who wanted the Center, such as David Weaver and Trisha Hammer. Marilyn Sward became the first Director; she contributed all the funds from her not-for-profit, Paper Press, to launch the Center’s opening.
Niffenegger taught at the Center for 12 years before her accepting her current position as a professor in the Columbia fiction department and is now writing the sequel to her bestselling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, due to release in 2018.
She has always been drawn to Chicago’s art community and its strong sense of cohesion when she was a student and its impressive scattering of talent now. She says, “There are all of these secret little groups of artists throughout Chicago that are so talented, that people should really know about, especially the printmakers at the Evanston Art Center and the North Shore Art League in Winnetka.”
She pays tribute to her mentor, William Wimmer, for her printmaking career beginnings. When she was 14, there was no printmaking program at Evanston Township, so Wimmer volunteered to teach her after school for as long as she wished to learn the art. She says, “He was a kind man, really tall with giant glasses that magnified, he actually resembled an owl. He spent so much time tutoring me, we even fixed the press and replaced the motor together.”
Also, you can watch the rehearsal video of Raven Girl at the Royal Ballet, narrated by Wayne McGregor, in the upper left or click here to go to the video.