ShareThis Page
More A and E

Low-tech crankies offer lots of charm

| Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, 9:01 p.m.
Ellen Gozion shows a crankie at Wilkins Community Center in Regent Square on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. A crankie is an old storytelling art form. It's a long illustrated scroll that is wound onto two spools such as the one on the table. The spools are loaded into a box which has a viewing screen. The scroll is hand-cranked while the story is told. It can be accompanied by a narrative, song or tune.
Sidney L. Davis | Tribune-Review
Ellen Gozion shows a crankie at Wilkins Community Center in Regent Square on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. A crankie is an old storytelling art form. It's a long illustrated scroll that is wound onto two spools such as the one on the table. The spools are loaded into a box which has a viewing screen. The scroll is hand-cranked while the story is told. It can be accompanied by a narrative, song or tune.
Ellen Gozion assembles a pre-made crankie box at Wilkins Community Center in Regent Square on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. A crankie is an old storytelling art form. It's a long illustrated scroll that is wound onto two spools.
Sidney L. Davis | Tribune-Review
Ellen Gozion assembles a pre-made crankie box at Wilkins Community Center in Regent Square on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. A crankie is an old storytelling art form. It's a long illustrated scroll that is wound onto two spools.

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.”

Inexpensive endeavor

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me