Mel Birnkrant Presents:
All of the Art on this site is one of a kind, created by CHARLES PONSTINGL, for the sheer joy of it.
He intended it as loving homage to the Great Comic Artists of former days.
The images are based upon the work of many, including some that were created by, and are
“Copyright The Walt Disney Company”. The writing and photography is “Copyright Mel Birnkrant”.
A SPECIAL DELIVERY
CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE
A few weeks later, Ron Van Anda appeared at my house with the other twelve carvings! Among them, were some really large ones. And there was one rather small one. On the back, written in pencil, was the date: 3/14/73, and etched into the wood, as if seared by a hot branding iron, were the initials “CP”. This was the earliest date of all the carvings in the group. They ranged from 1973 to 1978.
Of course, I didn’t know who “CP” was, and would not learn his name for several years. But I will jump ahead here, for a moment, to say that, later on, Charles began to number his carvings. And he informed me that if he could go back and apply the correct numbers to his earliest efforts, this, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” would be “Carving Number 1”. His latest work is numbered “227”. What a journey it has been! Thirty-nine years, and 227 carvings, later, more than 150 of his best works, many of which are Masterpieces, reside with me.
He also told me how it all began: One day, when he was in the midst of middle age, he picked up a penknife and a block of wood for the first time just to see if he could carve something. One of his many brothers was adept at carving birds and animals. But wildlife was not Charles’ thing, therefore, for inspiration he turned to Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Here is that first carving, shown actual size below. It is interesting to note that right from the beginning, Charles was interested in lighting. The attempt to show the torchlight glowing on the wall, the water, and Mickey’s clothes by random patches of orange paint is somewhat naive, yet, curiously effective. And, Mickey Mouse was, indeed, a fitting beginning for the many works that were to follow, as almost all of them were based on Comic Characters.
To understand Charles’ interest in Comic Characters, one need only look back to his childhood. All the Funny Folks, and the Great Artists who created them, speak to him of simpler times and better days, echoing an era when America was still fresh and brave. They carry him back to his earliest days, a time when good and evil were still easily discernible, and almost everyone, as well as the Comic Characters that Charles met in the "Funny Papers", were all on the same page.
Ron carried the carvings into my house, one at a time. Each one was contained in its own carefully constructed carrying case. As I lifted the lid of one box after another to feast my eyes on the treasures that hid inside, I thought, how strange this whole adventure seemed. These mysterious carvings; how did they come to be? The work of this reportedly unpleasant old man was clearly talking to me, and telling me a story that didn’t quite add up. Could this curiously friendly and so lovingly crafted body of work really be the product of a difficult and cantankerous old man? And why was it "he would never carve again"?
Below, are some of those twelve carvings. As you can see, not all of CP’s earliest efforts were great. But, if one follows the penciled dates, the growth that took place from 1973 to 1978 was amazing! I wondered what those that Tom kept for himself might be. If “The Headless Horseman”, the final carving, chronologically, was any evidence, they must have been truely fantastic.
“Little Hiawatha” appears to be CP’s second carving, 5/24/73, and Pinocchio, done later that same year, was his third. I can’t say they are among my favorites. In fact, as I photographed the multitude of images you are about to see, I originally eliminated these. But writing this, I realized that they, too, belong here to show where CP began and just how far he came from there. Even these first attempts display signature traits that will reappear consistently throughout the years, the objects coming out of the frame, the nameplates, always with the original creator's name; these will remain. Each original artist’s name always appears predominately on the frame, while Charles signs his work with only the initials CP, hidden inconspicuously. He always considered his own work to be inferior to the original art that inspired it. In the case of the next two early carvings, I agree.
Every piece that Charles creates is intended as homage to an artist he considers greater than himself. They are love letters to artists he regards as deities, each of whom he places on a pedestal. The story of Our Lady’s Juggler often comes to mind when I think of Charles Ponstingl. The humble juggler has no gift, other than his skill at juggling, to offer the Christ child, and that honest offering becomes the one that makes the Baby Jesus smile. I sincerely believe that the great comic artists that Charles honors in his carvings, wherever they might be, are smiling as well.
At my insistance, Ron told me the whole story again. I questioned him every which way in an attempt to glean any tidbit of information that might shed more light on the situation. But Ron had no more to offer me, other than the story that Tom had told him. On the other hand, he kept emphasizing the fact that Tom still had 4 carvings left, and suggested that I telephone him.
So I hung the first 16 carvings all together on a brick wall in the hall. And after a few days, I gathered up my courage and gave Tom a call.
I have heard tell that certain Polynesian peoples have a language consisting of only a few words, but each word has a multitude of meanings, depending on the subtle nuance of how it is intoned. Tom’s vocabulary always reminded me of such a language. One word in particular, consisting of only 4 letters, served as noun, adjective and verb. It dominated his “colorful” conversation, appearing every several seconds. What that word is, I’ll leave to your imagination. But, suffice it to say, if that over-used “expletive” were deleted from Tom's conversation and replaced with a “Bleep”, the resulting ruckus would resemble the honking of a gaggle of geese.
I informed Tom that I had purchased the 16 carvings from Ron and understood that there were more. I asked if he intended to keep them, and let him know that I would be interested in purchasing them if they were ever for sale, now or in the future. Tom explained that he had, indeed, held back a few pieces. But, because they matched the dining room curtains, he intended to keep them. A couple more, "Goofy" and "BLEEPIN' Bambi" were in his sister’s kid’s bedroom, and they, too, were not for sale. He wouldn't say what those he was keeping were.
I inquired for more details of the story about the “Crazy Old Man who would never carve again”. When Tom made it clear he wasn’t going to tell me any more than he told Ron, I accepted that at face value, and ventured into deeper waters, telling him that I had been staring at the initials “CP” and somehow seemed to “sense” that the “C” might stand for “Charlie”. Seeing I was now the appreciative owner of 16 of CP’s carvings, and there would be no more forthcoming, I asked if would he be willing to tell me the artist’s name?
The answer was, “BLEEP, NO!”
“Oh! Well, could you at least let “CP” know that one collector owns 16 of his carvings, and that he LOVES them?”
“Yeah sure! Why the BLEEP not?" he said. Of course, I knew he never would!
That was the end of the conversation! There was no place left to go.
Another precedent that was set in Hiawatha is the fact that, in the future, nearly every piece that Charles would do would be limited to four inches deep. How he would eventually learn to manipulate that shallow space to fit the whole world into it, is, in itself, a great adventure. One primitive attempt is seen below in Pinocchio. J. Worthington Foulfellow Fox and Gideon the Cat have been squashed flat! Charles will soon abandon that! In fact, every figure in every carving will become full round, and fully sculpted and painted, front and back!
CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE
CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE
This early carving, dated 1974, is plain and simple. Here are “Mutt and Jeff” as they appeared in their later years, the way I knew them as a kid. Jeff is discovered in the act of painting a flat car. He has a slight problem with his left arm. “Cicero’s Cat”, who is also flat, prowls on the backyard fence.
“Snuffy Smith” relaxes in his "Hootin Holler" cabin while his wife “Loweezy" and baby "Tater" look on. They are both hewn from one single piece of wood. Tater’s upraised pinky finger has not been added on. It is the results of careful carving. To render an entire double figure and leave that tiny fragile finger intact is an amazing feat. At least, I thought so at the time. Over the years, I grew accustomed to such virtuosity, as CP continued to raise the bar and break new barriers in the catagory of “Impossible to Carve”!
“Beetle Bailey” is a strip that celebrated the hilarity of the US Military. Here, Private bailey is on KP duty, peeling potatoes as the mess sergeant, Cookie Jowls wanders in. Meanwhile, Beetle’s nemesis, Sergeant 1st Class Orville P. Snorkel slips on a potato peel and tumbles right out of the frame.
"Puppy Love" was a 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon. So, how did it get transformed into this hideous late Mickey style? And Minnie with that awful bow! In my opinion this carving was a bow wow. It made me wonder where CP got his reference material, a 1940s comic, maybe? Years later, when I actually got to know CP, I never attempted to influance him visually. His natural talent was something that I was always careful not to spoil. Nor did I ever suggest specific subject matter. All the choices remained his to make. But, I must confess, I did subtly encourage him to tune his eye to “vintage” 1930s Mickey.
CP grew up in the era of Mickey’s decline. It was a time when Donald Duck was king. Donald ruled the Magic Kingdom, frequently appearing on the silver screen, but, more importantly, in "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories", which was everybody’s favorite comic. The adventures of Donald and his nephews and their irascible uncle $crooge McDuck, as rendered by the inimitable Carl Barks, was all but required reading for every red blooded American boy.
It was Carl Bark’s Donald and his nephews, Huey Dewey and Louie who defined what comic books were all about, especially for those too young for superheroes. Once addicted to Carl Bark’s Donald, one often remained a lifelong fan. CP certainly did. And this excursion into the Andes was one of the highlights of the first sixteen carvings.
Not only, did CP get “Lost in the Andes”, but, while there, he found Cubism! Square chickens! Really? I loved those Cubist chickens and the rather squarish Incan. This carving, like nearly all of the large horizontal shadow boxes to follow, measures approximately 30” x 12”. Don't forget to "CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE"!
Up to this point, I saw CP’s carvings as an interesting curiosity, and the fact that a cantankerous old man would choose to whittle comic characters, amusing. The shadow boxes were both naive and charming, and a little funky. But, never did I dream that they would open a doorway to a lifetime of friendship and adventure, and soar into the realms of Awesome. When I lifted the cover of the box marked Headless Horsemen, I’d saved it to the last because it was the biggest, everything changed! My God! This altered the whole equation! I hesitate to use the word Masterpiece too often, as there will be so many opportunities to say it in the pages that follow. But with so many Masterpieces to come, this, in retrospect, might be considered the first one.
The figure of Ichabod on his pony is exquisitely well done! The Headless Horsemen, the haunted graveyard, the twisted trees, all packed into a universe 4 inches deep! This was far better than the movie! If Tom could part with this amazing carving, how wonderful were those he chose to keep?