SEATTLE — According to his mother (in a position to know), Bradley Craft drew before he talked. Some children drop their obsession with drawing once they start to read and write, but Craft never quit.
Even a lifelong immersion in words as a bibliophile and bookseller didn’t choke off his drawing instinct. At Stacey’s, the venerated and now-closed San Francisco book store, Craft created literary caricatures for bookstore posters, sketching the hills and valleys of faces like that of California author Amy Tan. For his own amusement he labored over images of his 19th-century literary idols—Dickens, Thackeray. He even drew modern literary titans like Margaret Atwood in 19th-century dress (George Sand’s dress, to be specific).
Today Craft, now senior used-book buyer at Seattle’s University Book Store, is still drawing. He occasionally sketches for store publicity. He puts out a literary calendar—the 2012 version features Craft’s beloved Dickens, the science fiction/fantasy author George R.R. Martin, regally draped in furs, and the feisty African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Napoleonic stance and garb of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary. They’re mostly for friends, but the limited number for sale sold out.
If you become the subject of a caricaturist, it’s a good news, bad news situation. The good news is—someone wants to draw you! The not-necessarily good news: by definition, caricatures exaggerate facial features (Amy Tan said to Craft, Oh, you made my eyes so small. Anna Quindlen: Oh, my nose is so huge.) It is a window on character: “In caricature, exaggeration doesn’t entirely have to do with physicality,” says Craft. “Caricature has to do with capturing the attitude of the person portrayed.” Most of Craft’s subjects are flattered. A few are a little shocked. A very few have declined—thanks, but no thanks—to view the results.
Craft works mostly from photos. Google Images is a godsend — “there’s usually one image that will speak to you.” Other than some wicked renderings of certain politicians, his portraits are meant to be a tribute. “I don’t draw people unless I have some level of affection for them ... as affectionate as my somewhat twisted eye can make them,” he adds.
It helps to be a bit of a book geek to “get” Craft’s work. The science fiction author China Mieville, who Craft sketched while he read at the University Book Store, is portrayed against a background of squirming tentacles (Mieville’s 2010 book was “Kraken,” the name of a mythical giant squid). Seattle author and essayist David Shields becomes a Renaissance man of letters (Montaigne?) complete with puffed sleeves and velvet collar. Local steampunk author Cherie Priest is depicted as a windup toy.
Looking at Craft’s work, I had the usual primitive reaction to talent: Why can’t I do that? Well, as they say, many are called, but few are chosen. I can only admire the work, marvel at the ephemeral magic and be grateful that Craft’s work is one more ingredient in this city’s rich stew of literary culture.
For more of Craft’s caricatures and literary observations, go to usedbuyer.blogspot.com.