- Robert Johnson, Margie Greve, Digital Art Work, 8" x 10", 2012.
Bearsville-based husband-and-wife-duo Margie Greve and John Milward weren't sure how to refer to the art that Greve did for Milward's book Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock 'n' Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues) "Digital portraits? Illustrations? I don't really know what to call them," says Greve. In actuality, they are computer versions of Greve's longtime artistic passion: woodcuts—a relief printing technique where images are carved into the surface of a block of wood. Though illustrations (what Greve and Milward ultimately called them in the book) is less of a mouthful than digitized woodcuts, the more precise description brings the portraits into a clearer light: These are not true-to-life, hand-detailed renderings of rock and blues icons. They are vivid caricatures meant to give a sense of the artist's contribution to the music world.
In fact, Greve admits that many people may not even recognize the portrait featured on this month's cover of 1930s blues icon Robert Johnson out of the context of Milward's book (which Nina Shengold profiles in this month's Books section on page 78). "I don't know if people will look at it and say, 'Oh, that's Robert Johnson,'" Greve says. "They know the pinstripe suit, cigarette in mouth, long fingers on fret board." Greve purposefully portrayed the itinerant musician simply and straightforwardly—as a kind of Platonic ideal. "He's the model for every other musician," she says. "I didn't want to show him playing the guitar because he's the idea everyone has in their heads when they're playing."
To account for the sketchy, rumor-laden details of Johnson's life—including a myth that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to achieve musical success—Greve incorporated a backdrop of bad luck charms: bottles of booze representing the poison that reportedly led to Johnson's death, black cats, wishbones, hearts. "The heart—I think [that's] what started the whole thing," says Greve. "The love of the music, and of the woman he had a child with who died. He kind of went off after that."
Greve uses a variety of textures and fabrics to give each of the 20 portraits in Crossroads (which include such giants as Howlin' Wolf, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan) a different feel—a level of experimentation not possible when using wood as the medium. Working in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Greve scanned fabrics that she liked and used them to fill the black spaces in her black-and-white drawings. "It's what I've been doing forever [with woodcuts]," says Greve. "This is just a new way to do it." Collaborating with Milward is another first for Greve—but not a last. "We have another idea that we're working on," says Greve. This collaboration, though, will see a reversal of their Crossroads dynamic. The new project, Greve notes, is more focused on the pictures. "I want him to write something for me," she says.
Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock 'n' Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues) by John Milward, with illustrations by Margie Greve, was published by Northeastern University Press in June.