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The Far Woods by Sarah Burwash (Conundrum Press)

Nova Scotian artist Sarah Burwash crafted this lovely art book during a series of residencies in Canada that saw her in some fashion living out the fantasy she was pursuing in her work, that of pioneer women in her country. Burwash poured over tales of early Canadian settlers and paid particular interest to the women’s side of that life. 

Brought together in The Far Woods, Burwash offers images that hint at a wider narrative, while never imposing anything on the viewer that would turn the work’s possibilities into something so concrete as to be leaden. In this way, it’s a sometimes fanciful, often magical portrayal of woman as explorer, even though it can embrace a grim reality as well. The occasional nude figures in the first half of the book, which grasp onto birds and wallow in the fern, give way to harsher realities near the end, including quilting and other camp work, as well as an effecting still life that juxtaposes a lady’s undergarments and other belongings she might have on the frontier with a conspicuous gun at the center of it.

In Burwash’s world, the women’s spirits are the soaring creatures of nature, sprites that delight in the landscape they explore, while the women themselves are brave, sometimes harsh vessels for these souls seeking to break out. As their quilts spill out to reveal the exploration and conquest of the world by men, the women become a grounding element to the growth of civilization, that warm little spot that keeps the fires of passion burning well after the hard work is done.

Ghosts and Ruins by Ben Catmull (Fantagraphics Books)

Sometimes the memory of something horrible, the shudder it brings you, is better than the story of it actually happening. Ben Catmull understands this and in his art book Ghost And Ruins, he accompanies his renderings of creepy places with spare narrative of the horrors that once dominated the spaces. No longer, though — they are just shells of horror now, and the horror is related through the shiver of memory.

Catmull’s words offer a mix of amusement and mystery, and manages to include the strange, archaic outcomes that pop up in campfire ghost stories of old. People who visit these places will disappear or turn to skeletons or return “dazed and incoherent.” The places covered were sites of murders and rituals, the homesteads of eccentrics who can’t leave well enough alone and bitter pets.

Catmull’s black and white work walks the perfect line between creepy and amusing, often managing to achieve both in one image depending on your mood. His world is one of textures and design, where an evocative simplicity — whether portraying the ghost of a drowned girl, a foreboding gathering of snails or ramshackle houses hiding horrible secrets —both illustrates exactly what he is telling you and hints at just enough that might go unsaid and cause some chills. The best comparison for Catmull might be Edward Gorey, but Catmull is less concerned with presenting the dark foibles of people in a catty manner — he communes with that which unsettles and attempts to do them justice, even as he might cause you to grin.

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