With Peter Jackson’s movie, The Hobbit ready to open soon, I began thinking about another encounter I had during my teen years. I have written about the time I met the scrimsham Norwood Marlow at an art show in a local mall. This is the story of another such meeting.
A few years before I met Mr. Marlow, I was at the mall taking in an art show, booth after booth of varying sorts of artwork lined up in the corridors. One particular display caught my attention. It was a collection of original paintings and one-of-a-kind, numbered lithographs all depicting scenes or individuals from The Lord of the Rings.
This was the early 1970’s. The Lord of the Rings had a sort of underground popularity with college and high school folk. It had gone into a paperback reprint in the late 60’s and was hitting a healthy stride. Several movie attempts have been tried since those early days of popularity. Ralph Bakshi took a miserable stab at it in 1978. Rankin Bass, animators of many favorite children cartoons, gave it a try in the early 80’s with no success. Tolkien had sold the movie-rights to The Lord of the Rings very early in its printing, feeling that it would be impossible for a movie to ever be made. He could not have foreseen the technological movie-making advances that were to come. Suffice to say, its popularity in the early 70’s was large enough to spark many attempts right up to today and Jackson’s pending release of The Hobbit.
In addition to those attempts at larger works, the mental imagery of The Lord of the Rings spurred on many artists and musicians, such as Led Zeppelin, to include characters and theme in their works. Painters and graphic artists found the world of Middle Earth a fertile landscape, and it seems I had stumbled on one of them.
At the time there were not a lot of depictions of characters from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The artwork used for the covers of the paperbacks made no attempt to display characters or place, and was more of a stylized impressionistic view. Two brothers, Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, became the visual authorities for The Lord of the Rings, producing several calendars over the years and gave living form to Tolkien’s characters. But at that time portraits of the characters were few and far between. So I was obviously struck when for the first time I could see the faces of Bilbo and Frodo and Gandalf.
The display was made up of several free standing partitions with paintings and prints hanging all over them. The partitions were sort of like a maze. As I wound my way through, I found myself deep inside when I was struck by an amazing print.
It was a panoramic depiction of the first time Frodo directly encountered a Ring Wraith, and was titled, “Encounter at Weathertop.” The print was lit by a fairly standard portrait light. However, the technique of the painting itself worked so well with that simple little bulb that the entire work literally sprang to life. It had an amazing depth, as if you were looking through a window rather than looking at a flat piece of paper hung on a partition wall.
I continued to look around and made my way toward the owner’s portion of the display. There sat a young man, in his mid 30’s, with black hair combed up and back, and a black Van Dyke beard. Beside him was a woman, also in her mid 30’s, with dark curly flowing hair.
He stood and introduced himself. He was tall, over six-feet, and very lanky. His name was John R. Byron. He and I began talking about The Lord of the Rings. Let’s understand, I am a nerd now because I was a nerd then. I knew way too much about Tolkien’s work. More than one would know from a casual enjoyment reading. I had not only read the works, I read Tolkien’s surrounding works, combed the Appendices, and had even written Tolkien and received a letter in return. In school some of my friends called me Mithrander, which was one of the many names that Gandalf had and was known only to those who had dug deep into Tolkien’s lore. Mr. Byron was immediately taken with my deep knowledge of the works, as I often came up with tiny details he had overlooked. He and his wife and I chatted for quite some time.
I came back each day for the entire week of that particular art show. On one occasion, Mrs. Byron, or Carol, invited me to their truck/camper for dinner. It was an old refrigeration truck that John had converted into a mobile home. It was everything you would expect. There was a sink and stove section, a dinning and general living section, and a fold down bed. Everything was made of roughly hewn dark heavy woods. It looked like a Hobbit hole on wheels.
Before they left at the end of the week, I scrapped together a few dollars. Because I did not have a lot of money, being a high school kid, John was kind enough to quickly pencil sketch an image of Gandalf that he sold to me for the few dollars that I had. He also gave me a small, bound portfolio with tiny prints of some of his work. He and Carol informed me that they were on a regular tour and they would return in the spring, and then probably again the following year.
I made sure to visit with them every time they came around. On their second mall show I informed Mr. Byron that I was trying to paint. He gave me some little lessons, techniques that I still use today. With each visit I made sure to purchase something. Pictured at the top of this post is an acrylic painting of Frodo and Sam at the foot of Mount Doom. I also purchased a print of the “Encounter at Weathertop” which I have to this day.
I was able to spend a total of three art shows with John and Carol. It was always a wonderful experience being able to sit with a working artist and discuss artistic concepts, painting techniques and a fictional world we both enjoyed. They were experiences, and people, I will never forget.
There is a follow up to this post…
Portrait of the Artist with a Nerd Part Two.