Last February wasn’t exactly the first time that Dan Gardner read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was probably closer to the 10th.
The 59-year-old physical therapist describes himself as a voracious reader of literature both classic and contemporary. But when Gardner put Mark Twain’s 1884 novel down this time, something was different.
“I wanted to mark it somehow,” he says. “I’d taken up painting in the last few years, and I thought, ‘I’m going to paint a little scene from this book.'”
So he crafted an image of young Huck tracking Jim down the foggy Mississippi River. Inspired, Gardner then decided to re-read and paint scenes from more of his all-time favorites — one per week, for a year.
Earlier this year, Gardner submitted his work in response to a call for artwork from the Pikes Peak Library District. Dee Sabol, community engagement and outreach officer, decided to display all 52 paintings in the only library big enough to do them justice, 21c.
“We thought it was an amazing thing to host at the library,” says Sabol. “It’s one of those undertakings you just have to respect in another person … We have folks who read a book a week, but for doing a painting to go with them and completing them, [it’s] really impressive.”
Gardner’s book list is populated mostly with books he read as an English student at Colorado College, though there are exceptions, like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. All could be considered classics, from which Gardner chose among 150-plus possibilities as he went through the year.
Sometimes he’d be underwhelmed by a book he’d once loved; at other times, he was pointed in an unexpected direction by friends and acquaintances. Anyone who came to his home wound up talking about books they remembered fondly, or the classics they were reluctant to admit they’d never read.
Gardner hopes his art, set across from stacks of the books in question, will encourage people in the latter situation to finally take the plunge.
“I think the paintings made the books a little more accessible,” he says, noting Moby Dick as a particular example. His guests would, as a rule, come in, identify the painting, then admit they’ve never read its inspiration. “It’s a fun book, but it scares the hell out of people,” he adds. “They don’t want to start something that long.”
Before he took up painting, Gardner and his wife, Ann, were art lovers. (Disclosure: They’re also friends of Indy publisher John Weiss.) As they browsed respected works, Gardner unintentionally cribbed stylistic notes from an array of classical artists.
“Once you go to so many art exhibits — and we’ve gone to museums around the world to see art — and read so many books, you kind of have all that stuff in the back of your head,” he says. “When you start throwing paint down, it’s already in there.”
For instance, Gardner sought to represent the characters’ motions and actions through Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and wound up with a style heavily influenced by Jackson Pollock. He describes his Picasso-inspired take on The Catcher in the Rye as “New York inside and out.”
Of course, he did encounter a few challenges along the way.
“The Old Man and the Sea in a week is no problem,” he says, “[but] War & Peace in a week is a little tough.”
Was it hard, then, to stay on track? “Heck no. I was reading my favorite books in the world.”