Low-tech crankies offer lots of charm
Ellen Gozion discovered crankies while at a folk music festival in Augusta, Ga., and was instantly smitten by this old-time means of storytelling.
“Two artists who've revived crankies were performing one night, and my jaw just fell,” recalls Gozion of the moving panoramas she watched that night. “They were just so charming, I was captivated and I knew I wanted to make my own.”
Now, Gozion of Wilkinsburg is introducing Pittsburghers to crankies through a course she is teaching at Wilkins School Community Center in Swissvale and at the Crankie Fest she is organizing for late February.
In an age of slick YouTube videos, this antique form of multimedia entertainment is becoming popular again, and Gozion is hoping to spur a local following.
“It's magical in a simple, old-fashioned way,” says Susan Waggoner of Point Breeze, who signed up for Gozion's course, during which she will learn to make a crankie. “I love animation, and this is one form of animation that gets the young one in me engrossed. Wait 'til you see one.”
A crankie uses a series of images scrolled across a viewing frame, typically to accompany a story, poem or song. The artist hand-cranks the scroll to move the images as he is speaking or singing. Some crankies are accompanied by instrumentals, such as fiddling. Most often, they are shown back-lit in a darkened room at house parties and other casual gatherings.
“Owing to their folk roots, they are participatory and informal,” says Gozion, who works as a pianist with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and performs with folk trio The Early Mays. “You are making your own entertainment, which is part of the appeal.”
Gozion has made several crankies in the past five years, including “Pretty Fair Maiden,” an old Southern ballad she illustrated as a cut-paper mosaic on rice-paper scroll. It was an 18-month project.
“I made it as a mosaic because I can't draw,” says Gozion, who sings the ballad as she cranks.
Although rice paper is fragile, it is quiet when cranked compared to parchment paper, which many artists use, she says. “Some people love the noise a crankie makes. They find it quaint. Some people find it annoying.”
Crankies can be crafted from fabric, Tyvec and any other material suitable as a scroll. Wooden crankie frames can be purchased online for about $60, although crankies can be fashioned from any box, such as a cigar, produce or liquor-store box. Dowels can be repurposed from the cardboard spools that hold gift-wrapping paper or paper towels, and the cranks can be made from tongue depressors.
Crankies are low-tech endeavors that needn't cost a lot.
“I made this in an evening,” says Gozion of the “Daisies White” lullaby she illustrated with colored pencils, chalk, pastels and cut paper.
For “Geordie,” a 200-year-old English ballad about a wildlife poacher who was hanged for his crime, Gozion used mostly painted parchment, cut and collaged.
And for “Singing Birds,” which she whistles as she cranks, she used cut paper and paints.
Some artists incorporate marionettes and other special effects into their crankie presentations. While many crankie artists are musicians, the ability to play an instrument or sing isn't essential, Gozion says.
“At the (recent) Baltimore festival, there were more spoken crankies than sung crankies. Some crankies had no speaking and some told family stories or ghost stories.”
Part of the charm, she says, is that crankies are typically homespun.
Drawn from history
“Illustrated scrolls probably date back thousands of years, and were once huge, heavy, oil-painted canvases that told a story,” Gozion says. “But once they found their way to America, they became more folk art.”
The term crankie was coined in the 1970s by Peter Schumann, founder of New England's Bread & Puppet Theater. As an art form, crankies were revived in the past decade by old-time folk musicians Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle. It was their work that inspired Gozion in 2011.
“Once you see a crankie, you get bitten by the bug,” she says.
Pamela Hogan of Wilkinsburg signed up for Gozion's course because a crankie she saw decades ago in elementary school made a lasting impression.
“My teacher did a version of Stravinsky's ‘The Firebird,' using a crankie and puppets,” Hogan says. “After that moment, I fell in love with classical music.”
She intends to make a crankie illustrating Maya Angelou's “And Still I Rise.”
Susan Waggoner decided to make a crankie based on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
“It'll be me singing,” she says, “but everyone in the room can sing with me.”
Lisa Koperek of Monroeville came to the course not knowing much about crankies, but was intrigued by the concept. She thinks they might be a tool she can use in her therapy work with children.
“I use music and expression art with the kids now,” Koperek says. “This seems compelling.”
The class meets from 6 to 8 p.m. Sundays at Wilkins School Community Center in Swissvale. Details: wsccpgh.org
Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.