On the surface, writing and drawing seem like different skills. Being able to capture the essence of something both in words and with a graphite pencil, paintbrush, woodcutter’s blade or another artist’s tool is uncommon.
Learning how to employ language and write effectively takes a lot of practice. Drawing by hand and accurately bringing alive a subject does too. Both skills take time to acquire and are said to involve different parts of the brain. Like many things, they demand focus, patience, persistence and a willingness to make mistakes. Along the way, the process can be frustrating and gratifying. Becoming proficient in one art form is hard enough, let alone two, in one’s lifetime.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky drew portraits of his novels’ characters. Beatrix Potter sparked children’s imaginations through her tales and watercolors, humorist James Thurber’s quirky characters sprang to life in his cartoons and writings of him. In Maine, Brookville artist Robert McCloskey’s tales and pictures have captivated children and adults worldwide. Hampden artist Tom Hennessey movingly expressed his love of the state’s natural beauty and preserved traditional outdoor sports in prose and paintings. Then, along came Leslie Moore.
Formerly of Brooksville, where she served as the staff artist of The Brooksville Breeze town newsletter for eight years, Moore and her husband, Tom, live in Belfast. A fusion of her fine writing and drawing can be found in “What Rough Beasts: Poetry/Prints” (2021, Littoral Books, Portland, 70 pages, $18.95).
In 40 poems and 22 relief prints, Moore pays tribute to all the wild animals that she has discovered, watched and delighted in over two decades living in Maine. In “What Rough Beasts: Poetry / Prints,” all manner of birds are celebrated from Bohemian waxwings gorging on berries above a snow-fed stream to an immature, sharp-shinned hawk found dead on her front stoop de ella in Belfast. In “Ritual Embrace,” we see up close the female hawk cradled in the poet’s red-fleece mittens. We learn the raptor is the smallest of the Accipiters between a robin and a crow. We attend her burial in the crotch of a tree.
In her opening statement, fittingly titled “Dichotomy,” Moore dives into how she writes and makes prints. One provides relief from the other.
“I don’t have a poem today, but I’ve got the first blush of color on two relief prints — a woodpecker’s fiery cap, a grosbeak’s gold feathering — and the clear imperative to carve and ink and print one color on top of another — blues and browns, a gradation of grays, and finally, the black key block that will define all. Instead of putting one balky word after the other, I’m in my studio, sharpening tools, carving rough bark into a tree trunk, mixing just the right yellow to flame a bird’s brow, rolling out sky that darkens towards the horizon, anticipating the denouement when loose strands come together and my birds resolve, without a word.”
In her poem “Harbingers,” penned on Election Day in 2020, Moore captures both in words and accompanying print how mustard-yellow evening grosbeaks compose themselves like a sculpture on dark, bare tree branches. “Each descends to feast on black sunflower seeds, jostles for purchase, flutters others away, till a gust of hope spins our rate guests aloft to wheel and bank south towards Georgia.”
Originally from California, Moore began drawing animals as soon as she was able to hold a crayon. In the suburbs, her subjects included dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, parakeets, tropical fish “and any wild creatures I could sneak past my mother — snakes, lizards, pollywogs and thence frogs, rescued baby birds. She spent her weekends riding horses from age 5 to 15, dreaming of living on a ranch or farm. She also wrote and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. Teaching the English language became her livelihood and her professional career around the world from the West African nation of Mali and to Castine, Maine, where she taught at Maine Maritime Academy until 2006.
All along, though, she continued to draw. In college, a summer in Italy afforded her the opportunity to study figure-drawing and printmaking at the Accademie di Belle Arti Pietro Vannucci in Perugia. She further honed her skills in those mediums at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts and with Siri Beckman and Beauvais Lyons at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. She learned moku hanga and white-line woodblock techniques at Zea Mays Printmaking in Florence, Mass. She also joined a guild of linocut printmakers, who meet once a week under the tutelage of Waldoboro artist Holly Berry.
In the late 1990s, Moore began making pen-and-ink portraits of people’s pets. “I draw from photographs and descriptions of the pets’ personalities,” she writes. “And I strive to capture not only their physical likenesses, but their hearts and souls as well. It’s careful, meticulous work.”
Moore says she got hooked to relief printmaking in the Haystack class taught by Beckman.
“Making a relief print is just the opposite of making a pen-and-ink drawing. In printmaking, I carve out what I don’t want in the final image,” she explains. “In drawing, I ink in what I do want. I love the mental gymnastics this reversal of mark-making sets off in my brain.”
Indeed. Not to mention Moore’s nimble flips between her artwork and her words. The two become completely entwined. Her poem by her titled “On Presenting to My Poetry Group The Barn Owl Linocut I Finished This Week Instead of Writing a Poem” accompanies a relief print depicting a snowy white owl, swooping downward in the night sky and in light of a full moon. A gnarled pine bough completes the composition.
“Surely they’ll admire the structure of the print, the key block that shapes the composition, zig-zags the branch, radiates needles, sets the owl aloft,” she writes. “I’ve titled it ‘Barn Owl Nocturne.’ They may feel a rhythm in spilling pine, sense meter in wingbeat, catch their breath at the tonality of the moonglow.”
In “What Rough Beasts,” Moore words and images are made more powerful by Littoral Books’ designer Lori Harley’s choice of and striking use of a bold typeface, alternating between black and slate blue, throughout the book. The translucent yellow pages in the front and back are another artful touch. The slender volume is book art at its best. To learn more about Leslie Moore’s work, visit https://lesliemoore.net/home.html.