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The many sides and stories of 'The Raven'


October 27, 2015

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    When asked whether he considers himself more of an artist or a storyteller, printmaker Larry Vienneau said, “I think they’re kind of the same. The first artists were probably storytellers. They were probably, back in the Paleolithic days, writing on cave walls, doing drawings that had meanings for people. Most likely, they had a story to go with it.”
    That narrative closely resembles his own artistic approach. Vienneau, whose series “The Raven” is on display at the Averitt Center until Nov. 14, is something of a master at marrying the visual image with a written narrative. A walk through his exhibit is like flipping through a world mythology book with only one subject, where Vienneau is both author and illustrator of the story.    
    “The Raven” series examines the titular bird through the lens of different mythologies, religious and cultural traditions, and modern folklore and science. All done in stark, detailed black-and-white prints, the series revives, subverts and retells stories from across the world, presenting the raven in its many different roles: trickster, god, servant to gods, pilgrim, creator, destroyer, harbinger of calamity or hope. 
    Most of the stories in the series are fabrications written by Vienneau, who always starts with a narrative before he can really begin the accompanying image. He draws from a vast mine of world stories for inspiration, but most of the tales are of his own making. 
    One story, for instance, draws on an Inuit tale in which Raven hears small voices crying from within a clam shell. He breaks the shell to release the creatures inside, and in doing so unleashes Humanity on the world. In Vienneau’s story, Raven is feeling lazy that day and doesn’t bother. The tale is accompanied by a sketch of the bird perched on the clam shell, preening and drowsing. 
    In some of Vienneau’s stories, Raven is a god-figure; in others, he is a servant to Odin or some other deity; in still others, he is searching for God on his own, and either reaches his goal or comes up empty-handed. Rather than form a larger metanarrative, each piece in “The Raven” series stands as a complete story on its own, allowing Vienneau to explore traditions and possibilities, reaching conclusions that may contradict each other, using the same character — and to reflect the great diversity of cultures that employ the raven in their mythological lexicon. 
    But why the raven? Foxes recur in mythologies and folklore across the world; fish and deer often represent the “otherworld”; owls and bears hold spiritual significance in plenty of world traditions. With such a large cast of recurring characters, why lock onto the raven?
    Part of it, Vienneau said, is that ravens remind him of Alaska, where he first became intrigued by the bird. He worked with native author John Smelcer to illustrate Smelcer’s book, The Raven and the Totem (1992), which conveyed some of the stories from Inuit oral culture. An interest in the figure from the Alaskan mythology grew into a fascination with the bird itself. Several stories in Vienneau’s collection are personal accounts of his own experiences with wild ravens. 
    Vienneau came to appreciate the raven for its intelligence — ravens are clever problem-solvers and, as readers of Poe or Game of Thrones will remember, can even learn to imitate human speech. And he loved the diversity of roles Raven played in the tales he appeared in. 
    “I love the stories of him being a shapeshifter — being two different beings at once,” he said. “I love that he can have two sides — be kind, but also be cruel. Because we’re all like that. That’s the thing about Raven: There are a lot of parallels between humanity and the way people see Raven.”
    While the raven is probably most associated with Halloween thanks to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name, Vienneau’s “The Raven” series reminds viewers that there is much more to the bird — and to most things — than meets the eye. As Raven flits through his many roles and seeks his place in the bigger narrative, a viewer of the exhibit may find themselves on their own quest for meaning.

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