The Story Behind ‘A Visitor Comes to Covington’

The title page of the book Suzanne made for me.

Editor’s note: Here’s the backstory for “A Visitor Comes to Covington: A Fairy Tale,” a delightful handmade book that Suzanne sent me in March. I have made a video reading of the book you can watch here. Enough of my yakking. Here’s Suzanne:

Back in January, I sent a New Year’s card to Chris and Megan. In return, I received a handwritten thank you card and three stick chair badges. According to the Stick Chair Laws I was required to make a stick chair. Not being a woodworker, only a user of wood-based products, this presented a problem.

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My first thought was to make a collage featuring a stick chair and I played around with that idea with digital renderings.

This example was sent to Chris as a joke. Stick chair art on the wall, including a wedding photo, wallpaper and a John Brown chair.

Eventually, I went with the idea of a small book centered on a quote by my favorite 16th-century essayist, Michel de Montaigne, “Je veux que la mort me trouve plantant choux, mais nonchalent d’elle, et encore plus mon jardin imparfait.” In the story, a fairy tale, a Grim Reaper, arrives to escort a chairmaker to the great beyond. Having been given three stick chair badges the story would have a series of threes. I also wanted the book to be interactive with instructions to open, untie and unfold different items. I mined the Lost Art Press blog, Roubo’s “The Book of Plates” and other sources for the illustrations.

The prologue about the start of the visitor’s journey opens by lifting the planing stop from Megan’s workbench. The underside of the stop is lined with part of Randle Holme’s 17th-century tool kit. Somewhere in the chart is a stick chair badge.

All journeys begin with a map, and pirate maps are the best and most useful for constructing an alternate history of Covington and surrounding areas. The street map is from 1877, the decorative frame and the visitors skiff are from an Australian map.

The map was aged with the usual things: tea, water, dirt, curling, crumpling and folding. The manicules on the map point out where the story starts and will end.

The visitor’s arrival in Covington opens the main part of the story and and it is fairly clear he is a rather stylish Grim Reaper (I felt no need to depict him as a skeleton wearing a hooded robe). After hearing “Werewolves of London”on the car radio I added the line, “Under his hat his hair was perfect.”

The visitor has arrived well before the appointed time with the chairmaker and spends the first part of his trip visiting three old friends: a turtle, a cat and a queen bee. The idea for the animals as the visitor’s friends began with an old street name. On the 1877 map Covington still had a Bremen Street (now known as Pershing Street, probably renamed during World War I). A cat was one of the four musicians from the Brothers Grimm tale, “Town Musicians of Bremen.” The cat was a night singer (or yowler) and in one version of the story was named Burlόn. The image used is a sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, who also sculpted a statue of the four musicians that stands in the city of Bremen.

The three friends are representative of life cycles. Old Turtle will live for over a century; Burlόn, the cat, will live for less than a quarter century; Honey Tart, the queen bee, will live for a year or two and her worker bees only a number of days. They are also symbols of human characteristics: wisdom, independence and curiosity, and the industrious worker.

After imbibing a very nice Bordeaux and elderberry cordial the visitor mistakenly summons a third manicule that takes the reader to the middle of the story. Was the rogue manicule really a mistake or did it have another purpose? In the prologue it states the visitor has an obligation and here is part of that obligation, to delay his arrival to allow the chairmaker to finish his last chair. This is a mark of the visitor’s admiration and respect for the chairmaker.

The double doors into which the visitor vanishes happen to be from Paris and the curious reader can open them. Inside there is a stern-faced cat blocking the view of a vortex. So, nothing to see here folks, move along. While the reader advances to the wonderful workshop on Willard, the visitor deals with some of the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy of manicules.

Figuring out how to illustrate the workshop took a few days of thinking. The inspiration came from a menko, a square origami packet. The menko opens outward like a flower, and in the middle is a square. The four views of the shop were taken from a video Chris made a few years ago. The middle, or floor, was blank until it became the space for woodworking classes (with students who have broken the laws of time and space to be there). The door to the workshop is a photo of the outside of the building facing Willard Street and is opened by lifting the Catbus. Bean, of course, is in the driver’s seat. The underside of the door reveals the first part of the workshop. The outsides of the remaining three flaps are covered by a marquetry pattern drawn by Roubo. If the opened workshop is held in the right light it is possible to see a few sparkles of purple glitter because it is impossible to totally eradicate that stuff. Somewhere in the woodworking class is the second stick chair badge.

The hinges on the workshop flaps, as well as the hinges on all the doors are a double thickness of heavy drawing paper. Eight sheets of the sketchbook were glued together to support the heft of the workshop, which sits in a recess that is about four sheets deep. I miscalculated the length of the Catbus and ended up trimming back most of the front bumper.

The workshop foldout was not suitable to display the wall of hand tools, or paries manus instrumenta, and deserved its own section. It is a simple four-part foldout. The wooden door is from Türkiye and has wonderful carvings on the central panels. A cat helps keep the door closed, contrary to the usual behavior of opening all doors. The third stick chair badge is in the wall foldout.

The door from Türkiye. I was sorry to cut off some of the lower end to make it fit in the book.

When the visitor returns he resumes his journey to Willard Street. To emphasize the gravity of the task before him and how much it weighs on him the word panels are now grey and become darker as he nears the workshop. As he stands before the building that is both a home and workplace he looks up at the iron cat on the roof and he is saddened. At this point he is the only one that fully understands the meaning of the iron cat.

The story shifts to the chairmaker in the workshop and this shift is emphasized by the color of the word panels and a change in typeface. The word panels are again blue, but a darker shade because we are nearing the end. The photograph of one of Chris’ chairs was turned upside down and put on a black background to bring forward the detail, to see it from the chairmaker’s perspective and to see the “smile.”

When the visitor and chairmaker leave the shop the last chair seems to glow in the darkness. The accompanying multi-layer image started with a black and white photo of the workshop and a overlay of opaque black that left bare outlines of the interior. The darkened frame of creepy vines (stolen from the designs for the Stick Chair Journal) was the last layer before adding the chair. The trail of stars curving up and away from the chair represent ad astra, to the stars.

When the chairmaker leaves with the visitor two cats free themselves from the iron cat, descend to the street and walk through the fog to catch up with the chairmaker. The chairmaker was unaware they had been waiting for him and is overcome when the three are reunited (not to mention the cats can talk). I wrote a backstory that bridges the visitor’s sadness from when he sees the iron cat, to the point in the epilogue when the cats reunite with the chairmaker.

The Backstory of the Iron Cat

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The two cats and the chairmaker were constant companions in the shop. In his grief after the second cat died, the chairmaker mounted the iron sculpture at the peak of the roof. He had no knowledge of the cats’ agreement with the visitor. When the first cat died he refused to leave and eventually convinced the visitor to let him stay until it was the chairmaker’s time to leave. The cat agreed to stay hidden, no hijinks, no haunting. The same agreement was made when the second cat died. When the iron cat was put on the roof the two cats decided to enter it and stay until they could reunite with their chairmaker. When the visitor looks up at the iron cat he sees the sadness and grief experienced by all three.The second part of the visitor’s obligation was to free the cats when he came to escort the chairmaker. The red string in the epilogue represents the unbroken connection between the cats and the chairmaker.

The Endpapers & a Few Other Things

The endpaper inside the front cover is a collage of illustrations from various woodworking books in the public domain. I made it a few years ago and may use it in a future blog post. The facing endpaper is Monsieur Roubo’s opinion of stick chairs. At the back of the book the endpaper is a scene of several creatures, unknowingly being followed by a shark, all of which were made from Roubo’s bench square. The waves are from Roubo’s waving machine. The bench square was also used to make the little horses that were used on a couple pages. The cat on the roof was originally going to be a weather vane, however the iron cat was a better fit. The iron cat was taken from the Black Cat of Riga and you can read about it on the Atlas Obscura site.

Color changes to the word panels were used to express a change in mood or circumstance. Once again, a song heard on the car radio found its way into the story. The visitor’s “the gathering gloom” and the idea of colors fading to grey and white as he looks at the house are drawn from The Moody Blues song, “Nights in White Satin.” The visitor’s panels changed from light blue to grays; the chairmaker’s from medium to darker blues. When the cats and chairmaker are reunited the word panel is a pale yellow for light and joy. Adding layers to certain features of an image provided dimension to otherwise flat paper. Architectural elements on the outside of the workshop and the whole house have three layers on columns, roof ridges and some decorative features. The house also has spacers to lift it from the page. Carved panels on the door to the wall of hand tools were also layered.

The Missing Last Page or The Epilogue -Part 2

I originally had a second page planned for the epilogue, but I cut it, preferring to leave the reader with the chairmaker literally bowled over to learn his cats can talk.

Here is the deleted second page:

Once they had boarded the visitor’s skiff the chairmaker and the cats settled themselves in the stern. On inquiring where they were headed the answer was, “West.” After a while, the visitor joined his passengers at the stern. The cats, snuggled on either side of the chairmaker, were sound asleep. Wally was sleeping belly up, while Bean rested his head on the chairmaker’s knee. Gesturing towards the cats the visitor said, “In all my centuries those two were the most insistent, bull-headed and toughest negotiators about refusing to leave.” The chairmaker chuckled, “Cats always get what they want.” “Oh no,” replied the visitor, “it wasn’t so much about what they wanted, they insisted it was what you needed.”

If you hear the chorus from a Rolling Stones song you aren’t mistaken.

Although there will only ever be one copy of the book, I thought it was important to affirm the originality of the story. On the wild chance it happened to sometimes maybe seem similar to certain people and cats, of course, it must be a coincidence. I used a portion of the painting, “La Bocca della Verità” (The Mouth of Truth, circa 1530) by Lucas Cranach to illustrate my affirmation.

After almost five weeks of writing, making illustrations, waiting for glue to dry and so on, it was time to send the book to the Stick Chair Badge Approval & Distribution Committee at Lost Art Press. I was reluctant and a bit teary-eyed to let it go and thought a proper farewell was in order. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87 fit the bill:

Fairwell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou knowest thy estimate.
The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.

— Suzanne Ellison


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