Monday, September 17, 2012

At home with artists Joan and John Digby

A visit to the Oyster Bay home of poets, Joan and John Digby, is an unforgettable experience of wit, energy and intensity. John's framed collages compete for space with spoils from the couple's numerous trips to various parts of the world, and with shelves upon shelves of books. Scholarly works, poetry collections, illustrated albums, novels, and history books line the walls of every room in the house; essentially, every room is a library. Cats roam freely around the house and with the air of respectable bibliocats dust the shelves and work tables with their long tails.

John and Joan Digby in John's workshop. Sissy, the cat, in the foreground.
The couple met at Long Island University when John visited the C.W. Post campus on a reading tour of US. They were married soon after and settled in Oyster Bay, NY, in a house they still occupy, having expanded it over the years to accommodate their growing work, and which they have selected for reason no other than green siding (a step above another house hunting selection with rather interestingly sounding frogs in the basement).

'The Monkey's Egg'
by John Digby
John hails from England. A truant from every school he attended, he chose to spend his time playing cricket in good weather (with a chance of playing professionally - a very happy memory - John still has his left handed cricket bat from those years) or visiting the London Zoo and Natural History Museum when it rained. John, fascinated by birds from an early age ("bird" was his first spoken word), amassed vast knowledge in the field and was hired by the London Zoo as a keeper, a position he held between the age of 14 and 19. He was more recently made a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, an honor he cherishes greatly. John remained a great animal lover, a passion he shared with his wife. He wooed her with stories of gorillas and parrots at the Zoo.

'Camels and Other Mammals'
by Joan Digby
Joan, the Bronx native and a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, studied English against the wishes of her chemist parents. She became an English scholar (18th century British literature) at LIU Post, where she still teaches and oversees the University's Honors and Merits Programs. She also runs the Poetry Center there, presenting established poets and introducing new talent. Joan finds the exchange of creative ideas in the Academia invaluable, enjoys cross media explorations, is fearless in forging new grounds and creating opportunities for meetings of minds. She has developed lasting relationships with many of her colleagues and students.

Joan devotes a lot of her energies to care and rescue of cats, horses, and camels. She is involved with the The Animal Lovers League in Glen Cove and Camel programs at the Bronx Zoo and the Wild Camel Protection Foundation in UK. She produced many literary works on animals.

Collage from the Butterfly series
by John Digby
How do two highly creative individuals, with their own sets of interests, creative tools, demands for perfection, intensity, and aesthetics, manage to live and work side by side? Even their most basic tool - English - sets them apart; when they edit each other's work they clash over sentences and punctuation. The high volatility of the creative egos has its challenges and makes live interesting. Joan plans on writing a book about artists' wives one day, modeled after Vasari. And yet, with all the differences and volatility, they manage to collaborate on many projects to a great success. The combined and individual output of the couple is immense.

'A Clowder of Cats'
by Joan Digby
They both write and edit poetry and prose. Joan's work is more narrative and is usually inspired by things around her - her animals, family, or even tennis playing; John's may take any path and will frequently veer toward surreal. Recently John immersed himself in Chinese poetry on which he collaborates with Leslie Bai.

For the list of their works please see Prehensile Pencil Publications. This gem of a press publishes limited editions of short works by various authors, illustrated by black and white drawings, collages, photographs, and engravings. It continues the work of the earlier Poet’s Farthing Cards and The Feral Press.

They both photograph - Joan to document, John to collect materials for collages. Characteristically, they returned from a trip to Yellowstone with completely different sets of shots - Joan of grizzly bears, John of knotted trees.

John creates collages of black and white paper and ink. He considers them an extension of his surreal poetry. Incidentally, he also creates poetry collages. John frequently explores a topic or area that particularly interests him at the time - butterflies, fish, hedges, pods, and creates a larger series of different takes on the subject. The couple published 'The Collage Handbook' - an introduction to the art form with samples of modern collage work. John's collages were exhibited internationally and were requested by museums and private collectors.

'Fish with Ships'
Collage by John Digby

A visitor leaves the home of the two artists with a sense of admiration for their talents and dedication to their art. John is a workaholic, in a feverish hurry to express more and better. Joan is full of new ideas and fearless in their execution. Wit, energy and intensity - an inspiring visit, indeed.

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