The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles, Part 2
1962 facsimile edition of The Psalm Book
It has been more than two years since I posted the blog article entitled The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles, Part 1. Between then and now, I have been busy with a new job in Amarillo, Texas, and have been working on final preparations for releasing the recordings of the music project that we started over 5 years ago. An announcement of the project release date is anticipated soon.
This article goes into more depth of who Charles Knowles was, why his art inspires me, and why I think it is important to share his life story.
In 1962, about a year before I was born, a facsimile edition of The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles was published and sold in the United States, Canada, and possibly parts of Europe. The facsimile edition (shown in photos above and below) was the first and only printing of the book sold to the public. Forty five years later in Dallas, Texas, I located and viewed a copy and was deeply moved with its content. The artwork, format, vivid colors, thickness and texture of the paper gave me a sense of deja vu as if I had seen the book somewhere before. Perhaps as a toddler I may have grabbed the book from a coffee table in the living room of friends of my parents, and then ruffled through its pages. Or, perhaps later I saw the book on a visit to the public library with my mother.
In 2007, I explored the book as an adult for the first time. Shivers went down my spine when reading about the life story of the artist. The biographical sketches written by Philip Hofer and Katharine Kuh made me quickly realize that the life story of this young artist is almost as important as the artwork itself. I felt an immediate connection and identification with the artist. The book included an excerpt from a 35 page essay that Charles wrote at Putney School in the spring of 1957 which was around the time that he was printing The Psalm Book. The essay, entitled “As the Hand Turneth: A Study in Creativity,” inspired me to create a musical recording as a tribute to Knowles and his book. Portions of the essay are reproduced below.
Creation is a subject very important to me. To make a valuable contribution with my life is the only way I can assure myself that I have value.
Creation takes inspiration. A creative person must, more that anything else, be a person sensitive enough to receive inspiration and to evaluate it.
Inspiration is an elusive vision. It has to strike the right person, at the right time to do its work.
When inspiration strikes a sensitive person at the right time, it is like a drug. It maddens a creative person into activity that cannot stop until the vision that has been seen becomes a reality.
A great artist must have absolutely sure taste, or he will not know how to combine the materials before him into a beautiful whole…. [One must] visualize something beautiful clearly enough to be able to select the right materials to carry out [one’s] vision.
Death is an overseer. It holds the whip hand that drives men to creation. Few men can honestly reconcile themselves to the fact that they will someday die.
Some people who are skeptical about the after-life because they want to know the truth, still want the reassurance that their lives will have value beyond the present. These are the people that believe that their biographies can assure them of the value of their lives. If they do enough in the time given them, and are lucky enough, they can satisfy themselves that their lives have made a valuable contribution to man.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it will all thy might; for there is no work, nor devise, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, wither thous goest. [Ecclesiastes 9:10]….
The first time I read the above portions of the essay, I felt an overwhelming sense of duty to go on and complete the creative work that God had instilled within me years prior. By that time, I had already composed music for four and a half of the eight psalms featured in the book, and I knew that the music for the other remaining psalms would eventually arrive later if it was God’s will. What I did not know then is that more than eleven years would pass before the other music arrived. I agree with Knowles that when inspiration strikes at the right time, it is like a drug. It “maddens” persons like me into activity that cannot stop until the vision seen becomes a reality.
This project has had many starts, twists, and turns, some so precarious as to cause doubt that this project would ever be completed. The “Death as an overseer” reference in the essay hit me hard the first time I read it because I, like Charles, have a chronic disease that can overtake me at any time. I am keenly aware of the precarious position that I am in regarding my health. Every day is a gift to me. Every breath that I take and every beat of my heart depends upon God’s grace and mercy. I pray each day for help and guidance to complete the work that the Lord has given me to do in this life.
Why his life story inspires me
Charles Knowles was an only child to his parents who lived in Denver, Colorado. He showed astounding artistic abilities at a young age. He became a printer, painter, and sculptor. At age 14, he had works of art displayed at the Denver Art Museum. He came from a long line of artists and musicians in his family, most of them highly accomplished concert classical musicians. He thoroughly loved music, but by the age of 10, his hearing began to fail. During early childhood, he developed nephritis, which at that time was an incurable chronic kidney disease. Most of his early childhood was spent in the hospital in Denver. The doctors did not think that he would live past early childhood, but Charles proved them wrong, living into early adulthood. He knew that his affliction would someday overtake him. Tragically, dialysis treatment, which would have extended his life, did not become available in the United States until 1960, more than 2 years after Knowles’s death. The book describes how Knowles and his family struggled with his chronic illness. His optimism and forthrightness to carry on in spite of what he faced is deeply inspiring. He saw his art as the pinnacle of what he was meant to do.
Knowles is described as an artist-printer in the book’s introduction written by Philip Hofer who was the curator of printing and graphic arts of Harvard College Library. Hofer, in his later critical appraisal of the book, described The Psalm Book as one of the “summits of achievement” that stands out in the “long history of printing and book illustration in the Western world”. He wrote that Charles learned his printing skills at an early age working as a “printer’s devil” in the office of the Register-Call in Central City, Colorado in the summers of 1955 and 1956. His artistry and printmaking skills seemed to go hand-in-hand. Hofer remarked that Charles wanted to spend his life printing. He goes on to say that The Psalm Book is deeply impressive, highly original, and a masterpiece.
It is remarkable that Charles Knowles was only 17 years of age when he created and printed The Psalm Book. He exhibited a maturity that was far beyond his chronological age. Katherine Kuh touched on this in her foreword to the book…
His long illness perhaps explains a maturity and freedom of expression little known to the average teen-ager; it also may explain the searching faith that characterizes every inch of this book. These eight large woodcuts illustrating Charles’ favorite psalms are an object lesson in their total regard for meaning. To be sure, they do more than merely illustrate the text; they interpret it with touching fervor.
The artistry of Knowles was evident fairly early in his relatively brief life. His works in sketches, painting, and sculpture removed all doubt that he was truly a one-of-a-kind gifted artist. Because he was hearing-impaired due to chronic nephritis, Charles was limited in the musical arts although he kept enough hearing to appreciate good music. Because he had learned to read lips in social and conversational contexts, he seemed to hear others just fine. In order to hear music, however, he had to sit very close to the instruments to hear them playing. I can only imagine the sense of loss that he and his family had when his deafness first appeared.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to explore in this blog more of the remarkable events that led to the creation and printing of The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles. The connections that Charles and his family had with music are part of this story. The music that we are planning to release soon celebrates those connections, the artistry, the life, and the beautiful story of Charles Knowles.
David Albracht Jr.