Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


The very moment I plunged into the icy waters of the wildlife art profession in 1989, it became clear to me that I needed to focus on producing a high-quality coffee-table book of my paintings. I knew there was a sizeable audience out there that would enjoy having my artwork in their homes, but who wouldn't necessarily want to be confronted by it twenty-four hours a day, on their walls. I took a quick inventory of my available images, and found that I was a couple of hundred paintings short. I decided to change my focus, and concentrate instead on creating a body of work.

It was about a decade later that, through a series of coincidences and well-placed hints, I was approached by Abbeville Press, one of the big New York art book publishers, to collaborate on a book of my work. I worked with Abbeville for nearly a year, and we got as far as producing several "dummy" books for their marketing department to use for whatever it is that marketing departments do. The working title was "PREDATORS: the WILDLIFE ART of CAREL PIETER BREST van KEMPEN." I still keep one of these dummy books in my home, in open view, so guests will have to ask about it.

While the Abbeville marketing lab technicians were busy measuring the various qualities of my dummy books, someone from the front office phoned to tell me that my project had been "shelved." That didn't worry me too much. While my book waited on the shelf, I'd get a chance to catch up on a few other things.

After a year of catching up on everything I could think of, it became apparent that "shelved" was a publishing-house euphemism for "deep-sixed," and I went about looking for another publisher. I spoke to Louis Porras, president of Eagle Mountain Publishing, a small, specialty publisher of natural science titles. When he learned that Abbeville wouldn't be publishing Predators, he suggested that should I want to go with a smaller publisher, he would be happy to work with me. I had known Louie for nearly twenty years, and had done lots of illustration work for him. I trusted him completely, and knew he would spare no effort to produce the best product possible.

I conferred with a couple of friends well acquainted with the publishing world, and eventually decided that going with Eagle Mountain would be a very good decision. It was.

The first couple of months consisted of brainstorming about various ideas about format and approach. Louie talked to a number of writers, then asked me how I'd feel about writing the text myself. "Sure!" I said, "I can do that, no problem! I've got plenty of things to say! I'll have a manuscript to you in six months!"

Two years later, I sat at my desk staring at a blank computer screen, looking and feeling like Jack Nicholsen in The Shining. "What the hell have I agreed to?" I asked myself. "I'm not equipped to do this." Writing this text instilled in me an awed appreciation of the serious writer that no literature course could ever match.

The basic structure of the book never changed; I began with the premise of five chapters: prologue, invertebrates, reptiles & amphibians, birds, and mammals, but once I established a trajectory, I found myself eternally turning down pointless dead ends.

Early in the writing, Bill Lamar, of the University of Texas at Tyler, suggested the title, "UNTAMED! The ART OF CAREL BREST van KEMPEN." Louis and I both found the title catchy, and agreed to use it. In November of 2004 I was chagrined to see Bill's title scooped by a new book of wildlife photographs.

I began racking my brains for a new title. Looking for a two-word phrase, I wrote down two columns of words, one containing synonyms for "Life," the other, synonyms for "Force." No sooner had I written the word "rigor" in column two, than I had my title: "Rigor Vitae." Not nearly as catchy as "Untamed," and my translation, "Life Unyielding," involved some serious poetic license, but what it lacked elsewhere, it made up for in appropriateness. I emailed my old Latin professor to make sure my conjugation was correct, and notified Eagle Mountain.

Once I turned in my manuscript, the really hard work was over. Working with the editor, Laura Schuett, involved several weeks of full-time labor, but was a joy. I usually don't react gracefully to criticism, but having Laura point out the weaknesses of my manuscript was exciting and educational.

Overseeing the design and layout was also a pleasure. Megan Davies was amazing to watch. The average fourth-grader can dazzle me with facility for software I don't understand, but few can impress me with great artistic judgement and ideas the way she did.

Louie Porras was as fussy with his oversight as I am with my painting. He pored meticulously over every step, making absolutely sure everything reached his high standard of excellence.

Now that the book's "in the can," there's nothing in it but for me to sit and wait for the printers to do their bit. It seems odd to go back to spending my entire working day actually painting again, and I"m finding a renewed joy in that activity. Still, I kind of miss the writing. Maybe It's time for me to produce something more literary--a novel perhaps, or a great drama penned in iambic pentameter.

Nah, I've got painting to do.


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