Sean Karemaker created one of my favorite books of 2016, The Ghosts We Know, a dark autobiographical work that achieves a symbolic height as the psychological crashes into the recollections to create some otherworldly memoir universe. In many ways, Feast Of Fields is a follow-up to that work.
Karemaker’s mother and her three brothers spent time in a Danish orphanage while her mother was sick and her father was absent. Karemaker doesn’t dive into that story, though. He gets to those circumstances after depicting an aspect of his own childhood, showing us his relationship with his mother and revealing what kind of mother she is, how that affected him as a kid, and how that created the perceptions other kids had of him.
It’s an interesting way of connecting our own lives with the actions of our ancestors, in this case, his grandparents. Decisions they made about his mother’s upbringing directly affect his own decades later. But Karemaker sees this direct link and aligns the circumstances by a similar visual presentation between his own life and his mother’s. The layouts show emotional realities that aren’t as far removed in time and space as we believe, and that makes this book a singular work.
One of the most exciting aspects of this book is the layouts, the creation of which Karemaker details in a graphic addendum to the main story. Eschewing traditional panels, and even balking at the idea of strictly defined spaces in sequential form, Karemaker visually represents the complexity of human memory through what I can only describe as a collage-style method of storytelling. In the addendum, Karemaker describes his mother’s story as a tapestry, and his layout method captures this aspect.
Each scene is rendered in two-page spreads that are divided up into dimensions of human experience that can be expressed on the page — space and time. Sometimes his spread works as sweeping vistas of a scene, showing various intimate moments that occur in unison and provide context for the scene and a sense of the characters belonging in the world. Other times the vistas depict the movement of his characters, with various points of time appearing in one illustration instead. Either of these can have an Escher-like feel to them, a jumbled cascade that parades around itself, where beginnings and endings are the same things.
Still, other spreads dispense of the spatial mapping and become all emotion with the human forms jutting forward amidst their surroundings, like they’ve been captured in magnifying glasses and made separate from the rest of the world.
Karemaker designs his artwork to depict perception, and understanding the sort of story he is telling — the memories of his mother from a long time ago, as filtered through his own interpretations and tainted by his own experiences, and then expressed through a visual medium rather than verbal medium that must translate aspects of his mother’s memories into an entirely different language — is all about altered perception. And we, the audience, add one more dimension to the perception, a whole new filter in the tale.
But despite our part in this story as readers, and specifically as people gazing at the often surrealist maps that Karemaker lays out, in the end, it’s about one girl inside a walled playground in an orphanage, cut off from her family (even as her brothers are in the same facility as she is), cut off from the world, and cut off from time. It’s an endless presence behind those orphanage walls and that’s a lonely existence for her, but Karemaker manages to bring us into that loneliness in a touching way. He shows us the expanse of her landscape. She is not alone in the physical dimension but in that of the heart.
But he also shows how that loneliness brought him and his mother close together, both when he was a child and now, as an adult, working with her to put her story down in a graphic novel. It’s a very personal work that feels all the more vulnerable because he is sharing not just a part of his own soul, but his mother’s as well. A shared soul, existing across time and swirling around the spatial limits of our own existence.