With the recent release of a movie about Bilbo Baggins and his unexpected journey, it’s understandable if you visit the Suraci Gallery at Marywood University and immediately look for the illustrations Barbara Remington created for J.R.R. Tolkien’s book covers.
But as the 83-year-old artist herself says with a shrug, “That was just another job.”
What you might find more interesting is Remington’s own “42-Foot Trip to Mexico.”
In true “there-and-back-again” style, she used sketches and notes to detail her 1991 expedition from the Northeastern United States to Mexico, where she and other amateur astronomers watched the total eclipse of the sun.
Lined up one after the other, notebook-size pages take up 42 horizontal feet of the Suraci Gallery’s walls.
They explain how Remington set off on June 25, 1991, driving south through Shenandoah and Smokey Mountain National Park, and recording her impressions — the “hitch-hiking deer with fuzzy antlers,” the snake museum, the miniature-golf attraction, even the pieces of tire that had fallen off the wheels of big trucks.
“Land of the killer trucks,” Remington noted, along with more peaceful images of “sunflowers,” “cabin with laundry hanging on fence” and a bird called a “scissor-tailed flycatcher.”
Sipping from a cup of coffee she called “the staff of life,” Remington, who lives in Thompson, Wayne County, fortified herself with caffeine and reminisced last week as gallery director Sandra Povse put finishing touches on the exhibit.
When she reached El Paso back in the summer of 1991, Remington said, she parked her car and boarded a bus with a group led by professor Grady Blount from the University of North Dakota.
Everywhere, she found inspiration for sketches, from passengers awaiting a replacement bus because an air-conditioner had broken to a sculpture of Cuauhtemoc, “last chief of the Aztecs,” to a statue of Jesus Christ at a shrine.
She captured images of the friendly Mennonites who fed the adventurers a meal “in a big, cool kitchen” as well as Mexican children who played in the street.
“She was such a darling,” Remington said, pointing to a drawing of a little girl and her dog, remembering. “The kids would come and follow you, holding your hands.”
“This is a sign I saw there,” the artist said, pointing to a block of careful lettering: “Hallo! Do you want to practice Spanish by hour?”
Another panel showed natives “who could run for miles barefoot. They’re dancing with beads or bells on their ankles,” Remington said.
“This man was selling hats,” she said, pointing to her sketch of a gentlemen who had piled about 10 hats, one atop the other, on his head.
Near the town of El Divisadero, Remington stayed in a motel built on the ledge of Copper Canyon and sketched the fog as it rose from the famous gorge.
Representatives of NASA were among the people who gathered in Mexico to see the eclipse. They had sophisticated instruments, the artist said, yet some of them looked through “my beat-up, old telescope.”
Was the eclipse a mystical experience?
“Everything’s a mystical experience,” Remington said.
Her sketches of the return journey tell of a sudden rainstorm that “flooded the desert” and the wildlife that included antelope, magpies and “hundreds of frogs hopping across a road.”
Back in El Paso, she discovered her car’s battery had died, but she got a jump start and drove on home.
“We’re going to meet again in 2017 in Cerulean, Kentucky,” Remington said with a grin, noting the time and optimal viewing location of another solar eclipse. She’ll be about 87 by then but doesn’t expect that to stop her.
Other parts of the Marywood exhibit showcase different chapters of Remington’s life — the Bohemian years when she sat in poet Allen Ginsberg’s “tiny living room” in New York, listening to him recite; the sailing years when she worked on a tourist vessel in New York Harbor; that time in the 1960s when Robert Frost’s daughter, Lesley Frost, invited her along on a trip to Spain.
“I haven’t really seen all that much of the world,” she said modestly.
Remington was born in Minnesota into an artistic family, whose most famous member might have been her grandfather’s cousin Frederic Remington, “the cowboy artist.” Her father, Heck Remington, was talented but “couldn’t support a family with art” during the Depression, so he turned to more conventional ways of making a living.
Barbara Remington eventually became an artist for Ballantine books, which commissioned her in the 1960s to create cover art for the paperback edition of “The Hobbit” when it was to be distributed in the United States.
She didn’t have a chance to read the story first and ended up inserting pumpkin-like fruits into the branches of a tree and letting emu-like creatures graze below it. Reportedly, her picture was not among Tolkien’s favorite illustrations, but he accepted it as something that would attract readers’ attention in America.
Despite the author’s lack of enthusiasm, Remington went on to design covers for Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as well and even crafted a set of chess pieces in which the good hobbits and the evil orcs are all pawns. Horses, dragons and Gandalf the wizard appear among the pieces, and round-windowed hobbit houses serve as rooks.
The chess set is on display at the gallery, as are many sketches of musicians ranging from classical to punk rockers.
Which type of music does she prefer?
“I like music,” Remington said, implying she likes it all. “On Monday night I was driving home, and it started to snow terribly, but Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ was on the radio.”
The artist swayed back and forth, indicating the pounding beat helped her get home.
“It finished just as I pulled up.”