The Written Image: The Comfort of Crows

From the November/December 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When Billy Renkl was crafting the artwork that accompanies each essay in his sister Margaret Renkl’s new book, The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year (Spiegel & Grau, October 2023), he sought to capture the spirit of the wildlife under consideration while emphasizing the message of the prose: “I wanted the collages to make those plants—sticky willy, passionflower, clover—and animals—foxes, skinks, bluebirds—into concrete references that are factual and tender in equal measure but that nevertheless echo Margaret’s commitment to confronting the frightening truth of global warming,” he says. An illustrator and fine artist with “a giant stockpile of imagery” ready to be snipped from three decades of collected materials, Renkl found his main creative challenge to be selecting the precise components for each collage: “I wanted to honor Margaret’s careful observation,” he says. “Not this swallowtail butterfly but that one.”

The collage preceding the third essay in the collection, “How to Catch a Fox.” (Credit: Courtesy of Spiegel and Grau)

Renkl made each piece with cut paper derived from a variety of sources: vintage packaging, seed envelopes, a 1950s-era billboard, a wedding invitation, and antique chromolithographs, among others. Renkl also incorporated original painting and drawing with watercolor, ink, colored pencil, and other media, making each design a layered puzzle for the eyes. In the collage pictured above, which precedes the third essay in the collection, “How to Catch a Fox,” Renkl used a cube as a visual metaphor for a trap. Behind the captive fox is “a cyanotype made by superimposing drawings of four or five houses, suggesting a tangled, unnatural, impenetrable structure,” says Renkl. “The whole is backed by an encyclopedia illustration, suggesting the problem-solving that suffuses the essay.” The Comfort of Crows represents the second time Renkl collaborated with his sister on a book; the first was for Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (Milkweed Editions, 2019).