FIU alum Jesse Peterson recently contributed to the illustrations in The Big, Bad Book of Beasts: The World’s Most Curious Creatures, written by best-selling author Michael Largo.
Largo first discovered Peterson at FIU’s Bachelor of Fine Arts show in 2010. The piece he was drawn to, “Miami: The Bludgeoning,” is a video installation consisting of three animated projections. Now part of The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum’s permanent collection via the Betty Laird-Perry Purchase Award, the projections weave together a series of narratives that range from the prehistoric era through early Miami settlement into contemporary Miami. Largo liked the aesthetics of the piece and subsequently asked Peterson to create select images for his book.
The book explores animals both in existence and of questionable existence. It’s a study of our understanding of these animals. Peterson says, “There was a lot of playing with time and observing the animals from both the perspective of early concepts of what humans thought the animal was and what we’ve since learned.”
One example is a possible explanation for the cyclops myth. An elephant skull has a giant socket in the center, which is a nasal cavity. When viewed through early humans’ crude understanding of the anatomy, however, one could see how the giant elephant skull led to speculation of a giant one-eyed monster. Today, Peterson points out, we know it is, in fact, an elephant trunk and maybe the viewer starts to think about the elephant, then the cyclops again, then the elephant.
“I thought it was pretty cool. I enjoyed it,” he says of the process. “Some of the passages in the book caused me to have the same back and forth with human, animal, human question and where we fit in with that. Luckily, I wasn’t being asked to solve that problem.”
There are roughly 300 images in the book. Most of them are a compilation of several images and visual elements from a number of sources, as well as original sketches by Christopher David Reyes. Peterson had a lot of freedom with his illustrations. The concept for the images is derived from medieval bestiaries and early zoology journals, similar to those of zoologists who would sit in the field and draw numerous pictures of the various animals they studied. These drawings resulted in many lines and scribbles, as if they were trying to figure the animal out on paper. Peterson’s illustrations pay homage to that kind of submersion. The images are all digital; even the hand-drawn images are scanned and edited.
Publishers Weekly says in its review, “Sometimes…Largo is able to capture…the enjoyable sensation of being a child on that first trip to the zoo — or natural history museum, or the dinosaur section of the library — who isn’t interested in medieval lessons about ‘daring and sloth, loyalty and cowardice,’ nor contemplations on ‘what makes us essentially human and at the same time so similar to animals.’ No, the much simpler thought process that this book should be proud to elicit is just one joyful word: cool!”
— By Lauren Cerda