An appropriate aesthetic epistle born of a very troubled time


Plagues and Pencils: A Year of Pandemic Sketches

Edward Carey

University of Texas Press 

Hardcover, 9781477325865, 214 pages

September 6, 2022


Edward Carey inscribes a well-drawn sketch of everyman’s pandemic experience, for better or worse, in a most authentic way: sketches, daily drawings for each day of his own lockdown experience. The sad emptiness of severance from others, the emotional stress of an unknown viral threat as well as the indeterminate length of the pandemic isolation, and the tunneled view of the world that the 2020 lockdown engendered is palpable: it’s “the business of being closed off from one another,” Carey observes ruefully, an undefined sentence we all served. 


There’s a foundational simplicity to Carey’s drawings, which are just wonderfully clean and simple contrasting pencil lines on plain white paper. Carey suggests to the reader a similarity to Geppetto, Pinocchio’s father and creator, who found himself abruptly swallowed up inside a giant sea creature, completely isolated for two years. Carey is an artist engulfed by a pandemic, isolated, distanced indefinitely. Like a prisoner’s etching on a cell wall, Carey’s drawings inscribe a bold statement in black and white that he, like all of us abruptly confined in the hobbled Spring of 2020, still lives and breathes with thoughtful singular hope and passion. 


The artwork is stitched together with scraps of textual musings and observations, plus small explanations that ring with the bottomless desperation of the lockdown: how long will this isolation last? What is the health risk to loved ones? Where and when will this all end? The artwork is one man’s creative diversion, a cornucopia of images with a thread of pandemic-themed continuity. Day one finds Drawing One picturing a “determined young man” with a troubled, inquiring face, and this character recurs throughout the portfolio in newer versions that depict the compounding emotional and physical stress of self-isolation.  


The collected artwork is comprised mostly of faces, both contemporary and historical, with accurate, discernable likenesses, but also includes wildlife drawings. The two subjects illustrate the irony of pandemic and lockdown: Carey’s animals—mostly birds—seem most imaginatively aesthetic compared to his human subjects, and rightfully so, because the birds can fly free, and do; the lower species blissfully unaware of the temporal confinement of zoo-like isolation paradoxically endured by humans.  


While Carey’s animals, particularly the birds, are naturalistic, his fictional human faces seem a little too predictable: mouth shapes, poses, expressions, eyes, all share a tangibly unnatural similarity. Their undercurrent of discomfort contrasts tellingly with the naturalness of the animal sketches depicting wild creatures simply living their fullest natural lives unfettered by the self-imposed human isolation. The homogeneity in the portraiture symbolically portrays the commonality of the multitude comprising a nameless, faceless, pained, and isolated humanity. Would that we could have shared the animal world’s blissful ignorance of the pandemic. 


Along with the Geppetto analogy, Carey mentions Samuel Pepys, the prolific 17th century diarist whose dutiful and meticulous writings inscribed daily Middle Ages life in vivid detail. But there’s a distinct double irony in Carey’s comparative allusion placing his artistic endeavor alongside Pepys’s journals. First, Pepys reported that 1665, the height of the Great Plague of London, was one of his best years in many ways. Second, there is the matter of politics, which Pepys largely sidesteps throughout multiple wars amidst several struggling political factions and overthrown rulers. Pepys maintains the boundaries of many revolutionary artistic movements from the Renaissance through the Pre-Raphaelites that overturned the Royal Academy and all previous standards of aesthetics. They did so while maintaining their priority of art-for-art’s sake, as the movement was named, largely free of political ideology.  


Carey, not so much. From the Foreword, in which Max Porter cites “an ogre in the White House” and a “creepy” vice president, through Carey’s sketch of the Texas governor which he titles, “A Moron,” political ideology often subordinates his aesthetics. Sketches of those with whom Carey clashes ideologically tend toward the grotesque; those aligned with his politics are depicted more nobly. 


Carey confesses a conflicted relationship with the Lone Star State. He lives, writes, and draws in Austin, yet he makes it clear that he doesn’t like Texas. Nonetheless, he confides that he hasn’t seen much of the state. In literal terms, Texas is the whale and expatriate Brit Carey is Geppetto, which is understandable. That some of the drawings lean towards political cartooning is not necessarily a bad thing, as Carey approaches the expressive artistry of a Thomas Nast or William Hogarth. In the final analysis, Carey has embedded a deliberate ideological subtext in his collection that, for better or worse, tends to overshadow the aesthetic thread, if not the pandemic chronicle. 


The pandemic year was troubled and troubling for all of us in the belly of the beast throughout the lockdown. Plagues & Pencils captures the frustration and uncertainty of confinement and Covid peril endured by humanity worldwide. Carey’s Geppetto is an artisan surmounting the soulless isolation with finely crafted, simple line drawings with equal measures of hope and anguish. Overall, that is an appropriate aesthetic epistle born of a very troubled time. 


Edward Carey is the author and illustrator of four novels-Observatory Mansions, Alva & Irva, Little, and The Swallowed Man-and the YA series The Iremonger Trilogy. He teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.