For the new year, I’m taking inspiration from Lauren Redniss, author of the recent
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout. The book is an illustrated biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, and Redniss made her images through a process called cyanotype. It involves exposing chemically-treated paper to sunlight, which turns the backgrounds a fantastic blue. Redniss also designed a book cover that glows in the dark (“I had it written into my contract”), paying homage to the Curies’ discovery, radioactivity.
She designed a font for the typeface, too: a curvy intellectual type that she named Eusapia LR, “for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies attended. Yup,” she says on her homepage.
Her typed lines of narrative curl around her pictures and often come in anapests, chunks of meter that skip until landing heavier on their third foot. Lines that use anapest sound grave with a sense of direction: ba ba BUM. In the line below, I’d stress “home,” “learn,” “hus,” and “dead.” Then, the first syllables of “flowers,” “picked,” “country,” “fresh,” and “table.”
“Marie returned home to learn that her husband was dead. The flowers he had picked in the country remained fresh on the table. His grey watch, recovered from the scene of the accident, still ticked away the time.”
You land heavy on the last word, “time,” with a sense of having arrived. We’re in the hands of a lyrical narrator who knows history. Here’s the image she made for those lines:
Redniss often embeds touching details in commas (in the line above: “recovered from the scene of the accident”). These embedded phrases save details that would otherwise get lost in a rush of wordier history. “They took their honeymoon on bicycles, riding along the coast of Brittany and into the French countryside, her handlebars festooned with flowers.” Redniss saves the dangling flowers even while submerging them in a naturally half-forgotten phrase, in commas.
I’m inspired by Redniss’s sense of the way danger relates to beauty. She reports that as Marie Curie became obsessed with work, Curie started sleeping with a jar of glowing radium by her pillow. “Radioactivity had made the Curies immortal. Now it was killing them.” That jar by the bed is that artistic passion that moves you as it hurts you, that feels nauseatingly hard to produce but is the way to express your talents.
Redniss herself works with detail in a difficult way, with a rough originality in her images and words.
I see radioactivity too—an affair between beauty and ugliness—in the cupcakes that Redniss makes, shown on her website:
I see her eye for the beauty in ugliness in the photos she takes “for fun,” here:
As the New Year comes, I'm taking some cues from Redniss and her hero, Curie. Embrace what's hurting me if it's also expressing me. Allow myself to make ugly cupcakes. Try for surprise in my work (too often I'm strung to the logical). Continue to marry images and words.
What are your resolutions?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.