“Black Clouds Rolling In” : The Weight Of History Hits With The Force Of A Storm

Formatted as a rounded-edges digest with an open spine revealing a visible glued binding, Liesbeth De Stercke’s 2016-published sketchbook collection from Bries, Black Clouds Rolling In, is a curious and instantly-memorable physical object in its own right, as well as being one that quietly but forcefully beckons you to explore its contents in detail — and that word right there, detail, perhaps best sums the project up better than any other.

One glance at the cover tells you that De Stercke is a stickler for it, believes in it, thrives on it — and so she does, not a thing escapes her notice. But this collection of sketches of the Great Depression/Dust Bowl era — produced at a daily clip throughout the course of 2013 — isn’t just concerned with physical and environmental detail. They represent only half of the equation. The other half that De Stercke deftly captures and subsequently communicates is the emotional and psychological gravity of living through what surely were the hardest of hard times.

Certainly, household names such as Steinbeck and Shahn come to mind when looking at these agonizingly authentic illustrations — and comics fans in particular may be reminded of Tim Lane — but the extent to which De Sterkce was able to peel away the extraneous and get to the core of her subject time after time, in relatively quick succession, is I think wholly unique, and lends this work an immediacy that could well fool the casual observer into thinking that it must have been drawn contemporaneously with the period depicted. It looks that real, sure — but it also feels that real, and that makes all the difference.

And, really, what does a gulf of nearly a century between artist and subject matter in the overall scheme of things? If one has a passion for a particular historical epoch, and the requisite ability to translate that passion into expressive pen and ink drawings, then a chronological divide represents nothing so much as a challenge to be met head-on and not an actual “issue,” much less a “problem.” De Stercke may not know what a dinner of thin gruel tastes like or know the pain of looking out over a field devastated crops in the personal sense, but she’s nothing if not inherently empathetic toward those who did experience such things — and she more than honors their ability to withstand devastating hardships and struggles with her efforts.

And that’s a crucial word to bear in mind when examining this work as well — effort. These are frequently gritty scenes, and they certainly happened during some pretty damn gritty years, and De Stercke’s sketches are proof positive that a lot of the grit these folks needed in order to survive flows through her own veins, as well. She really gets in there and works this material — there are no shortcuts taken or easy outs resorted to. She puts everything she has into each image, and consequently wrings everything she can out of them. The results, as the handful of examples included with this review clearly demonstrate, speak for themselves — but there’s also something thematically apropos about physically taxing oneself as an artist in service of conveying the realities of trying times. To gloss over anything would be inherently dishonest; to give it anything less than one’s best efforts an inherent sign of disrespect. And if there’s any one thing that every single page of this book both displays and subsequently earns in its own right, it’s respect.

This work is, then, something over and above a mere series of thematically-linked illustrations, or even a story told visually — it’s a testament to the sheer determination of people for whom the end of the world was no mere abstraction, but a hard and fast reality, yet who somehow found the inner reserves to buck up and deal with it as best they could. They deserve nothing less than De Stercke’s absolute best, and she gives it — and then some.

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Black Clouds Rolling In is available for $24.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/blackclouds.html

Review wrist check – Ocean Crawler “Paladino Wavemaker” green dial model riding an Ocean Crawler “Vintage Crazy Horse” leather strap.