Illustrating Observations from Dick Proenneke’s Handcrafted Life

“Elin, you have captured the spirit of Dick Proenneke in your previous illustrations,” Monroe Robinson wrote in his packet of instructions. “His coveralls are not new. He has a handkerchief sticking from his back pocket, a trademark for Dick photographing himself. Illustrate the collection of logs. Include some of the knots and detail on the facets on the ends of logs that show a woods person his manner of felling the trees.” Illustration by Elin Price.

“How long did it take?” is sometimes a difficult question to answer when it comes to making a book, particularly when you consider the time spent acquiring the knowledge that is at the heart of any book.

This is particularly true for Monroe Robinson, author of the upcoming book on Dick Proenneke. I asked Monroe to write about himself for the book’s introduction and, after reading it, I realized Monroe’s life story could be a book in and of itself. His bridge to Dick (which I say both figuratively and literally as it includes the building of a log bridge in Alaska) is filled with determination, vision loss, talent, bravery, compassion and adventure. On top of all that are the 19 summers Monroe served as caretaker of Dick’s cabin, restoring and, when needed, creating museum-quality reproductions, using the same raw materials Dick would have used and, when possible, Dick’s tools.

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So to answer the question “how long did it take,” well, Monroe’s life accounts for a lot of it. Then there are Dick’s journals, which, once transcribed, amounted to more than 7,000 pages which Monroe spent hours combing through. Also: writing the book; editing it (with help from Monroe’s wife, K. Schubeck); acquiring and sorting thousands of photos from the National Park Service, and Dick’s family members and friends; our edits (here at Lost Art Press) of both text and photos; the creation of a design template (Linda Watts has completed this and it’s gorgeous); the creation of three maps (which Monroe and Brendan Gaffney are working on); and more than 60 hand-drawn illustrations.

New G. I. Crampons on boots similar to Dick’s boots. Illustration by Elin Price.
Dick’s crampons. Monroe wrote that the main point of this illustration is
to show the reader the repair plate welded into the toe portion. Illustration by Elin Price.

We needed so many illustrations for two reasons: (1) some photos weren’t high-enough resolution or in good enough condition to reproduce and (2) there were some things Monroe wanted to show/explain that could only realistically be done in illustration form. Monroe has always been drawn to Eric Sloane’s work and so, with that in mind, after a long search we hired Elin Price, a UK-based paper artist.

Elin created this piece on commission. “I watched lots of underwater videos of sea otters swimming and decided to create this dynamic design to show off their fluid movements through the water,” she wrote on Instagram. “I wanted to create a sort of suspended ‘scene’ with the two otters, the drifting kelp, the rocks and anemones below and the swoop of the water. There’s also a tiny fishing boat at the top!”
“A little experiment – more refinement required but practice makes perfect,” Elin wrote on Instagram.
Elin created this piece for the “together” prompt for Molly Lemon‘s #wewillmake campaign.

Elin grew up in the Yorkshire Dales and now lives on the edge of the Peak District. Primarily a paper artist, Elin draws and designs everything she creates, hand cutting with a Swann-Morton scalpel. Her work ranges in size from a giant mermaid (their local mermaid who is said to live in Mermaids Pool on the slope of Kinder) for the New Mills Festival to papercut scenes as small as her thumbnail. Her academic background includes archaeological illustration, which provided her with training in observational drawing and depicting small details. And being skilled in observation is precisely why she excels at both papercuts and the beautiful illustrations she’s making of Dick’s handcrafted life.

To help guide Elin, Monroe created a 43-page document filled with pictures and texts. This has been quite helpful as often Elin is creating illustrations of tools without proper photo representation. Take, for example, Dick’s ice chisel, which Monroe talks about in Chapter 2.

“The only photos of the chisel are present day photos taken in the archives with the shaft of the ice chisel being a maximum of 2” in diameter a few inches above the steel chisel,” Monroe wrote to Elin in a follow-up email. “The 2” diameter maintains at that diameter for more than 2’ up the shaft before tapering as a natural spruce sapling would taper toward the upper end of the handle. That section of the shaft that maintains 2” diameter is not the natural taper of the spruce sapling. Dick first made the ice chisel using the spruce sapling with its natural taper, so the diameter of the handle increased in diameter throughout the length of the handle until just before the metal chisel. Your illustration will be best if it illustrates what the ice chisel handle looked like when Dick made it in 1968, with a maximum diameter of 3”, which is the natural taper of the sapling. Years after he made the chisel (1977), he shaved the handle diameter from 3” to 2”. Two inches is the width of the steel blade. That is why the photos are different than what is needed in your illustration.”

Monroe continues, noting a saw cut up the shaft but he asks Elin not to include the natural crack that developed over time. He talks about the wire wraps that hold the shaft together, and asks Elin to use two, not three as shown in the photo, and he talks about the groove Dick carved to help hold the wraps in place, and the location of the wraps’ knots.

“Your illustration could show little flats from Dick shaving the taper in the lower end of the handle and finally rounding the end, much like you so beautifully did with the chisel handle in the illustration with the collection of tools,” Monroe writes.

Dick’s cabin building tools. Illustration by Elin Price.

Elin gathers all this – Monroe’s mindful, detailed instructions, photos from various sources and Dick’s journal entries – and then, she draws. Careful. Observational. And all a work of art.

Dick’s cabin furnishings made from white spruce. “It is hard to see but the surface of the chair’s seat and backrest and the top of the bench are not planed smooth but have a surface of very shallow scallops made with a gouge,” Monroe wrote. “That would be wonderful to capture.” Illustration by Elin Price.

Elin plans to have all the illustrations complete by the end of February. As Elin finishes a chapter’s worth of illustrations, Linda will work on the design, that way both can be done simultaneously.

We hope to have this book – representative of a mind boggling number of hours of work (and observation) – to the printer this spring.

— Kara Gebhart Uhl


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