|Cover of Small Things, published September 2016|
I never met Mel Tregonning, or spoke to her in person, but we did email back a forth a few times after I discovered her work for a small graphic anthology Flinch published by Gestalt in Perth, for which I was also a contributor in 2009. Her short piece entitled Night featured a lonely character bothered by strange, microbial shapes emerging from shadows cast by her own body, a silent sequence of graphite pencil drawings that struck me as very poetic and assured, and I wrote to let her know how much I liked the piece. I also encouraged her to consider a longer work for publication: it turned out she was pursuing this already, and we talked briefly about the technical difficulties of rendering so many consistently good images in a narrative sequence, especially using tonal drawing – I had just not so long ago completed The Arrival, which has many parallels with the project Mel had set for herself. I also recommended her work to one of my trusted publishers, Allen & Unwin in Melbourne, and was delighted to hear a little while later that they had offered her a book contract. We kept in touch occasionally after that, and Mel shared a few examples of completed pages, which looked terrific, and an interesting evolution from her original piece in Flinch. I was most impressed by her patience, dedication and clarity of vision, not to mention the technical precision of her drawing style and natural sense of narrative flow.
The next time I heard about Mel was during a publishing meeting about another project in late 2014, and my editor, Jodie Webster, who was also working closely with Mel, told me the tragic news that Mel had taken her own life. It was hard to believe and took a long time to register. Her untitled book project had been left incomplete, although only by a relatively small margin. Most of the immaculate artwork had been finished, and apparently Mel had indicated that she still hoped for the book to be published, a wish strongly supported by her family, especially her sister Violet with whom she had a close relationship and often discussed her work.
Given my experience with editing silent narrative I was asked to work as a consultant on the final stages of the project earlier this year (2016). Jodie and the team at Allen & Unwin had already done an excellent job putting together page layouts that worked perfectly in the absence of missing elements; well, almost perfectly. There were a few critical images that Mel had sketched out in detail, but had not been fully rendered in her laborious drawing style, they were only very pale outlines. After examining Mel’s original drawings closely – very large works using soft graphite on medium-weight paper – I realized I was familiar enough with this technique to be able to emulate Mel’s style. Not perfectly perhaps, but enough to carry the reader through certain passages without noticing a difference. I spent a few weeks working on the ‘missing pages’ and these were then able to be added seamlessly into the overall design. Fortunately, Mel had left such intricate preliminary work that this was not difficult to do, only time-consuming, as if she had conscientiously left instructions as to how such work should be carried out. I can confidently say that everything within these pictures is entirely of Mel’s imagination, and I’ve merely assisted with a technical realization, and passed both original art and copyright back to her family. The whole time working on these pictures I could imagine Mel’s critical eye examining every line and smudge, wondering what she would think. It was a very strange experience not being able to ask for advice or approval, even as Mel seemed so present among the original drawings I was using for reference, but perhaps this absence made me try even harder to get it right.
I’m very proud to have played this small part in bringing this excellent book to a broader public, I believe Mel’s vision is an important one to share, regardless of its origins or backstory: it’s just a great book. The narrative itself concerns a small boy whose confidence is literally eaten away by tiny creatures, triggered by relatively minor events at home and school, and growing to alarming proportions within a silent world. There is a wonderful resolution to all this, which is neither sentimental or contrived. And while it is tempting to interpret this on many levels, particularly considering Mel’s own battle with mental illness, I feel some caution is due, that one would do well to avoid drawing simple conclusions. For many artists dealing with inner difficulties (which is most of us) the making of art represents a moment of heightened clarity and mindfulness, not an expression of malaise, and this is the feeling I find in Mel’s work; a clear and critical gaze upon matters that are universal, familiar to everyone, a strong grasp of the delicate balance between hope and despair with which we must all contend, and a kind of enlightened peace – a meditation – that can flow from the act of drawing or writing. Above all else, Small Things is a book must be read entirely on its own terms, projecting whatever it will into the mind of each reader.
To find out more about Small Things, you can read this interview with Violet Tregonning on Triple J’s Hack:
You can also download for free Mel's original short story Night from Gestalt here: http://www.gestaltcomics.com/shelf/digital/night/ and visit the Allen & Unwin site here