American Master

A mid-afternoon crowd packed Foster auditorium in the Paterno Library last Friday for the world premiere of a film honoring one of America’s lesser known great artists.

Lynd Ward was a name I recognized from The Biggest Bear, a book I’d read as a boy and more than once in recent years to my son. The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge is another Ward-illustrated children’s classic. But “O Brother Man,” a 90-minute documentary by Michael Maglaras and 217 Films, revealed  dimensions of Ward that I had never suspected.

An artist of prodigious output and acute social conscience, Ward quietly produced a gigantic body of work over a 60-year career ending with his death in 1985.  His wood engravings, in particular, combine mastery of craft with imaginative depth and feeling to mesmerizing effect, especially in the magnificent series of six  “novels without words” he created between 1929 and 1937, limning the causes and effects of the Great Depression. The books, which have been called “a multigenerational saga worthy of Faulkner,” were recently reissued by The Library of America, and Ward is now regarded as the father of the American graphic novel.

Writer/director Maglaras introduced his documentary. Also in attendance was Ward’s daughter, Robin Ward Savage, whose voice is prominent in the film. Savage lives in nearby Philipsburg, and it was she who, with sister Nanda Weedon Ward, donated to the Penn State University Libraries the extensive collection of Ward’s wood engravings, original book illustrations, and other graphic art that now forms the Lynd Ward Collection. A subsequent gift from 217 Films has helped to digitize Ward’s work, expanding research opportunities for interested scholars.

In 2011 the Libraries and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, in celebration of the Ward family’s gift and in recognition of this American master, established the Lynd Ward Prize for Graphic Novel of the Year.

The film will be available in June on DVD. A ten-minute trailer can be viewed here.  

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