Artus Scheiner: Is It in the Blood?

We were living in Germany, and my dad got a slim box in the mail. The kind that usually indicated a book. He said we were going to look at something very special once we got home. Me and my sister sat at the dining room table with Mom and Dad while our younger sister and brother played; they were too young to understand the importance of this book. My dad flipped through the pages very carefully with amazement. We had a family coat of arms, and there was text going into the symbology, though there wasn’t too much actual writing in the book. There were lions on the crest, which represented courage. But even at twelve, I knew that. I didn’t need a book to point it out. I really didn’t feel a connection to the book on the Scheiners. It seemed vague and not quite right. This was pre-Internet, and I think my grandmother may have ordered this for my dad.

So I forgot all about that Scheiner book with its coat of arms with lions that looked like a cartoon, not real at all. How could anybody carve that onto a shield? Instead my interests were more taken by visits to the Landstuhl Post newsstand and the few racks that were stacked with real comics. I’d also read the cartoons in the daily Stars and Stripes that my dad brought home from Ramstein every day, but what me and my sister really enjoyed were long-form comics. It started with juvenile Archies, which were few and far between because my family couldn’t really afford these extras.

But one day we discovered a treasure trove of comics in the dumpster outside of our building. They had been thrown out by the Covingtons who lived above us. A couple of teenagers in the family were the source of the comics, and I figured Mrs. Covington must have stumbled on them and made her kids get rid of them. She was super-religious and had been spotted in the woods outside our housing complex cutting switches from the trees to beat her kids with.

For sure, Alan Moore’s and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing would be against her religion. I remember being terrified while reading the eco-horror title when a boy’s parents release the Monkey King after playing with a ouija board. With both excitement and dread, I watched that black-and-white monkey as it started feeding on the blood of children. I didn’t know comics could do that, and it was transcendent for me. We’ve always been artists in our family, and with horror comics paving the way, along with a deep love of Grimm’s fairy tales, some seriously demented and wonderful creatures sprung up. We’d always had a taste for the dark, the gothic, and that was reflected in my family’s artwork.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled onto work by Artus Scheiner, a bohemian artist from Prague, who specialized in cartoons and illustrations made in gauche, my paint medium of choice in college because of the bright colors. I clicked a link that Guillermo del Toro put up on his Twitter account and was stunned to find artwork that looked so similar to what me and the rest of my family produced.

I tried to find more information on him, and the things I uncovered gave me shivers down my back because of the similarities I found. Artus started off as a financial clerk in Prague, but he had an interest in drawing and art from a young age. After he started having success publishing his illustrations in important magazines of the time, like Lustige Blätter, he quit and worked full-time as an artist. He participated in the café culture of Prague, where intellectuals, artists, and writers gathered, and frequented Café Arco, which was visited by other famous luminaries such as Franz Kafka and Max Brod. There he met Milena Jesenska who he asked to work as a model for some of his fairy-tale illustrations. She didn’t mind modeling nude, but she was kind of grossed out by his studio.

Artus and his older brother Josef Scheiner, who was a politician, were part of an association called Sokol, which believed in gymnastic training and cultural development for its members. Josef loved puppet theater and would stage productions for children and guests in his study from 1895 to 1907. The puppet theater was a family affair with puppets being created partly by the brothers’ mother and some by Josef’s wife, Karla Scheinerová. Artus helped by creating scenery and backgrounds for the stage. And Josef would write the scripts, some based on old fairy tales. This reminds me of work my sister has done designing marionettes and selling them on her Etsy shop. Teen Vogue contacted her once, and she lent the magazine one of her puppets as a prop for a photo shoot.

Artus is identified as an artist of the Secessionist movement, which puzzled me. But reading more about it, I found it was part of a reaction to classical art of the time, and there were many bases for the movement: Prague, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. I knew it as art from the Weimar Republic, and some of the artists associated with this movement are Otto Dix, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and George Grosz—only some of my favorite artists. While staying in Berlin, those were the artists I sought out at smaller galleries and museums, skipping all the classical art.

One of my favorite images by Artus is an illustration for the story “The Wooden Baby” from Tales from Bohemia. For the longest time, I thought it was a picture of a giant frog wolfing down a person, but no, it’s a wooden baby with a voracious appetite who keeps eating everybody he encounters while singing rhymes: “I’ve gobbled and gobbled/All that I can;/A jugful of milk/And food from the pan./A whole loaf of bread/And, all this is true—/My mum and my dad/And a dairymaid, too!/I’ve eaten a peasant/And all of his hay,/Pigs, swineherd and shepherd/And sheep, in a day./But as I’m still hungry…/I’ll eat you, if I may!”

The similarities between that and some of my stories are eerie, and now as I work on my kids’ book The Rats of New York with illustrations done by my sister, looking at her artwork and one by Artus for the book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, they almost appear as if they came from the same studio. In my eyes, at least.

I am actively trying to acquire some of Artus’s work now through a Czech auction house called Sypka, but so far I haven’t been lucky with any of my bids. I think I need to make a visit to Prague the next time a lot is selling. I want to see one of these artworks in person and really study it.

Pimping Out My Apartment

I love beautifying my apartment, and in the last year, my sister and I have kicked it into overdrive. The centerpiece of our apartment has always been ammo crate bookshelves. When Kristi and I were in high school, my mom would buy these ammo crates for five dollars apiece at a local store that had hideous things like camouflage overalls and fishing lures. She loves a sale and the ammo crates were a deal, but they sat in our garage for a long time. Kristi was the one who figured out that they made fabulous bookshelves when staggered and stacked up on top of one another. And each crate had rope handles on the ends so it was easy to move them by stacking the crates and lifting them up by the rope loops. The last time we moved and the movers saw all of the ammo crate bookcases, I thought they were going to pass out. I could see them mentally calculating how many crates there were and how many flights of stairs they would have to walk down with them. Then we showed them the trick, and suddenly they were all smiley faces.

Our ammo crate bookshelves.

Last year, I spent August in Berlin and had a fine time glutting myself on German art from the Weimar Republic. I picked up a few posters of artwork by Otto Dix and George Grosz, a couple of my favorite artists, and brought them home with me. Kristi and I also had a poster of one of our favorite Caravaggio’s from a trip to Florence a few years earlier, and we had never had it properly framed. I took the art to the Frame Shop at Pearl Paint when Kristi was working there, and she helped me pick out really great frames and mats and then had the great idea of using a circular mat for our Caravaggio shield of Medusa.

Caravaggio in our kitchen.

Once we had all this fabulous artwork to hang up, we wanted the walls to look festive, so we went to the hardware store and picked up a few gallons of paint—banana yellow for our kitchen and a really saturated turquoise for my bedroom. Around the beginning of the year, Susan Godfrey had a Kickstarter campaign for the last funding she needed to start her coworking studio, the Productive, and she had a set of drawings by artist Maya Edelman as a prize for a certain level contributor. I fell in love with one particular drawing—The Sadness of Not Fitting—and had to have it. I wanted to support the Productive, but I wanted to own this particular drawing even more. When I got the drawings, I had Kristi evaluate them once again and she came up with the perfect frame treatments, which cost under twenty dollars and look great against our yellow walls.

Maya Edelman’s drawings.

The ammo crate bookcases still look wonderful, but I was getting sick of the rest of our living room. We had used the same blue futon cover and curtains for several years, and they were starting to get dingy and yellow. Our friend Sarah was coming to visit in October for Kristi’s birthday, so this became the perfect time to fix up the living room a bit. I had it in my head that I wanted skull curtains, and Kristi, the master seamstress, said okay and that we could go pick up some material and she would stitch them up. We went to the Fashion District in Manhattan, where skull fabric was all the rage a few years ago, and found nothing but a chichi silk fabric with a very subtle skull pattern after visiting a half-dozen stores. One proprietor told us to come back in a week because the stock is always changing. We just couldn’t wait that long. We went home and Kristi found some nice-looking fabric online with the bold, dramatic skulls that we craved. We decided to take a risk and order it, and the fabric really did turn out to be lovely and worth it. Again, it cost less than twenty dollars, and Kristi whipped up these babies in an evening.

Our skull curtains.

In this same week, I also decided that I had to have a leopard-print couch—probably because I’m reading all these heavy metal biographies and autobiographies right now as research and animal prints are a big part of the style. Also, my mother started buying us leopard-printed things starting in high school. I have a leopard-print cigarette case from her that I use for my laundry card, and we both have matching leopard-print comforters from Christmas one year. Now, it’s turned from Mom buying me leopard to me buying it, so maybe the fetish is just something I’ve inherited from my mother—a genetic predisposition for leopard print. The leopard-print futon cover that I ordered online looks so nice, and now we have the old grungy blue one as a spare so Kristi can rip it apart and make a pattern for new futon covers. I’m imagining zebra print and snakeskin print, a skull print. Maybe we’ll change the futon cover every time a new guest comes to visit us.

Our new and improved leopard-print couch.