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ASU alumni debut book at art gallery

July 16, 2008

Meet Henry, a man deeply afflicted by a midlife malaise and not certain of how to fix it. He tries to remember if he ever felt loved or accomplished. He is convinced that crows flutter inside his head all day long, and he can’t help but wonder if the crows are all he has.

Although a fictional character, Henry’s struggles to find his own truth and satisfaction in life are very real, say ASU alumni Zachary Cook and Neil Gillingham, the creators of “Henry” – a picture book for grown-ups.

Nearly a year and a half ago, Cook, the writer, ASU staff member and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences alum, approached Gillingham, the artist and Herberger alum, with the first few lines of what would become an artful story, or illustrated poem, about a woodworker coming to terms with his own existential crisis. Now, the writer-artist team have debuted their picture book at Five15 Arts, a local artist cooperative gallery on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix.

Gillingham says he has observed the graphic novel medium crossing over to galleries more in recent days, offering viewers a second look at what was once considered a low art, especially in the United States.

In their exhibit, Cook’s carefully crafted words, communicating Henry’s internal dialogue, set the stage for abstraction, which Gillingham’s painfully fervent images confirm.

“The story was ripe with imagery,” says Gillingham, who created 22 image panels to illustrate the life of a man who thinks “crows are nestled in the concave of his skull where his brain should be.”

Gillingham says his main objective was how to best visually represent this universal idea of a person wrestling with an omnipresent void in his life and then the outward manifestation of it.

“For me, creating the art was parallel to Henry’s crisis, in a way – it was the outward manifestation of what was going on internally for Henry.”

“There is something inside of Henry just like there is something in all of us, and he’s actively trying to break out of it,” says Cook, who sees the piece as somewhat of a coming-of-age tale, only later in life.

Gillingham adds that the crows in Henry’s head can be seen as representative of the character’s crippling boundaries out of which he is trying to break.

Cook, who manages a team of students and full-time staff for ASU Parking and Transit Service, received his bachelor’s degree in English and has found that the university has nurtured his creative work as well as offered him a community of friends and artists. Gillingham’s bachelor’s degree in art and master’s degree in education also have helped cement his ties to the university, as well as influenced his decision to apply for a membership role at Five15 Arts.

“There have always been a family of artists at the gallery,” says Gillingham. “I applied for the membership specifically with the Henry project in mind. For me, the gallery show was always the main product.”

Launched at the First Fridays downtown monthly art event that has helped build up the Phoenix urban community, “Henry” invites viewers to walk the circumference of the space as they experience each page of the story framed on gallery walls. Visitors can purchase their own copy of the graphic poem to take home as artifact, enclosed in a wooden case. And a set of woodworking tools also is on display in the center of the space, as well as a sculpture of Henry with a crow head.

“If Henry thinks there are crows in his head, than there are,” says Cook. “People have these crises at any age, and what I discovered in my 20s is that a lot of it is self-imposed. This is really a story about finding personal freedom.”

“Henry does things, he leads a life, he’s a bit sad, but he breaks through the barriers with which he’s struggling,” says Gillingham. “Hopefully, people find him relatable.”

“Henry” will be on display through the month of July. Five15 Arts is located at 515 E. Roosevelt in Phoenix. Gallery hours are 5-9 p.m., Friday; 1-5 p.m., Saturday; and also by appointment. For more information, call (602) 256-0150.