LAST LEAF FIRST SNOWFLAKE TO FALL, Leo Yerxa, Groundwood Books, Douglas & McIntyre, Canada, 1993; Orchard Books, 95 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, 800-528-5244, 1994. 32 pages, oversized, hardbound. $14.95. 0-531-06824-2. Library binding, 0-531-08674-7
With the usual insensitivity to tribe (" hey, Indians are Indians"), the publishers remark (only on the dust jacket) that Yerxa "was born on Little Eagle Reserve" described as "near Fort Frances." Since that's in the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, most likely that means Yerxa is probably a Lake Nipigon Ojibwe. Whatever, he's a wonderful artist, whose delicate paintings in subdued colors convey the quiet mysteries of this change of season in the northern lakeland woods.
Yerxa tells in a prose poem of the snow's first beginning -- a whisper of wind between the sparkles of stars -- in a time before time. A young person makes a hole in a windowpane frost forest, then goes out with a friend into a crisp, leaf-crunching autumn morning. They hike and canoe to a campsite, eating and playing on the way, and camp the night with their canoe sheltering them from the first snowfall of the changed season, awakening to find yesterday's blanket of leaves now blanketed in snow.
There are very few words. The story is carried by large pictures, often laid out in double- spread (where I resented the spine breaking them down the middle, despite excellent cross-page match in cutting and binding). The two people, who could be children, parent and child, or First Man and Woman, are often seen in from-above scenes. In a double-page of the snowy night, we see only circles of warmth, their campfire, in a snow-spattered moonlit scene that covers two full, facing pages. Earlier, on another 2-page spread, we don't see them. We see the beaver pond from above, and a couple of beavers carrying a few last branches to the underwater raft of branches they will feed from after freeze-up. This 2-page layout is marginated -- but the corners all have bunches of colored leaves, extending, cutout into the white space.
Yerxa's pictures are representational but they are almost patterned abstracts, too. He collages large pieces of torn, textured paper and paints over them,m incorporating the textures and torn edges as hills, underwater rocks, the uneven leaf-blanketed forest floor, heaps of new-fallen snow, and the coats (embellished with painted beadwork embroidery strips) that blend the two Indian people almost into those scenes. In one marvelous use of the torn-paper technique near the beginning, water, forest shore, the rising sun and its reflection and the people are all underlain with textured paper overpainted with clear, sharp images of the final morning of the autumn forest.
This pic is on the dustjacket, and would be very suitable for framing (the title doesn't deface it) , had not the idiot jacket designer defaced one corner with the product barcode (when there is plenty of empty frame space for it on the margin of the back cover).
There is little text, except for the poem at the beginning, it's all in the pictures, to be seen, "read" and talked about some fall or winter's evening. And, by adults, to be enjoyed anytime. People who know the woods will be able to see much more in these scenes than those who don't, but by attentive looking, which these calm, meditative yet cheerful pictures encourage, you can learn to feel the spirit of the woods and waters at this quiet time, even if you've always lived in a crowded desert-city environment, such as Los Angeles.
A word about print quality. That's of first importance for a book of this type, where subdued colors and delicate surface textures are the essnce of Yerxa's style in these paintings. There are other technically demanding featurs too. Many of the paintings are facing-pages spreads -- some involving "bleeds" meaning it extends to each edge -- and must meet in the middle with a close match across the 2 facing pages. Other pages have a layout that is technically demanding even though there is white-space margin all around -- there are spot-color patterns of leaves or other little objects in these margins, requiring spot, as wll as process, color. Other pages have several shaped (croipped) paintings "lined up", such as an oval of the two Indians sleeping, below, with a circle showing surrounding trees in perspective from below on the beginning-to-snow sky, Too, Yerxa's style is very unforgiving of color register mismatch, for the process color screens that is the method of color printing. Even with a magnifier, I could see no register mismatch. In short, this is as high-quality a print job of a technically demanding art book as I've ever seen. It was printed in Hong Kong. There, and Singapore, are about the only places publishers can get high quality art printing and binding (which requires a great deal of skill as well as very expensive equipment) for reasonable cost, that will allow the book to be sold at affordable prices. It is interesting to compare the cost of this one with that of Arthur Schilling. The Schilling book is in every way less technically demanding, forgiving of slight register mis-match because of Schilling's borad-brush style, using pix that are always framed in white-space margins, using plain colored endpapers, etc. Printed in Canada, it costs twice the price of Yerxa's much finer-done, much more technically demanding, book. In my opinion, cost isn't the only problem. U.S. and Canadian printers no longer have the most advanced equipment for high-quality color art printing, and North American printers don't have the skills any more, either, which are also extremely technically demanding. The long apprenticeships necessary to master it are not available to North Americans any more. Tribal and small publishers contemplating quality Native books with demanding color art-printing requirements should take heed. Investigate Hong Kong and Singapore printing (and binding) facilities, while remaining the publishers yourselves. You can produce books whose physical production does justice to our artists, for reasonable cost that way, and no other.
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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 1996 - 12:53:47 AM