James Lewicki and American Folklore

My first encounter with James Lewicki’s art was in The World We Live In, the best natural history book ever written *inserts bias*. His work was primarily eerie seascapes in that series, but this prolific and talented artist did a lot of art for LIFE Magazine during the 50s and 60s.

His greatest contribution to LIFE is the American Folklore series, which he initiated. According to Lewicki’s biography told here:

It was while working on Christmas legends that a neighbor commented to Jim that the United States really had no strong tradition of folklore and cultural heritage. Jim went to the library to see if this was so, and found volumes to the contrary. He proposed the theme of folklore to Life magazine, and they asked for a for a dummy presentation of 12 pages. Jim found it impossible to condense it all down to one article, so he suggested a series, and much to his surprise the editors agreed. This assignment lasted for five years.

The end result is the gorgeous LIFE Treasury of American Folklore, a collection of American folktales all illustrated by Lewicki. They include travelers’ accounts, Native American legends, colonial stories, northern and southern folklore, tall tales, and the like. The book is, of course, a product of its time, but a lot of it is still as effective today. This post is an appreciation of Lewicki’s work on the book.

Some of the stories in the book would be familiar to most readers. This include good ol’ Rip Van Winkle, seen waking up in incredible detail below…

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… and such beloved fakelore as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.

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There are modern legends too, such as “The Man in the Middle”, which will be familiar to anyone who read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (and lost sleep over it).

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The first big picture you get reading the book is the monsters of the Sea of Darkness, and hooboy is it impressive.

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Nayenezgani and Tobadzistsini on their journey to the Sun could well pass as a metal album cover.

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Meanwhile Sedna’s fingers giving rise to the beasts of the sea manages to be somehow beautifully stylized and creepy at the same time.

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The Jersey Devil, seen here with a ghostly pal.

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Ahhh, ghost pirates. Where would we be without them?

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Probably the most nightmarish and memorable piece in the book is the witch woman who literally spins her skin off, shedding it like a husk of corn, until nothing remains but an enormous cat. Yikes.

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I can’t end this brief appreciation without mentioning Lewicki’s Swan Valley Monster, the first time this awesome monster was visually represented (to my knowledge).


What I’m saying is that The Life Treasury of American Folklore is a worthwhile acquisition for fans of folklore, creatures, Americana, and excellent art. I still hold out hope that Time-Life reprints it and The World We Live In in high-quality glossy modern editions, but this will never happen as we all know…