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”.
CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE
Our first phone conversation was as much a revelation to Charles as it was to me. He was surprised and pleased to learn that all the carvings that he had sold to Tom had ended up with me. All, except BLEEPIN’ Bambi and Goofy, which he hastened to inform me were not that great, anyway. Well, Charles never did think much of his own work. He is an extraordinarily modest man. And he never fails to present his latest offering, without profuse apologies for what he sees as its many shortcomings.
I have tried, time and again, to convince him that his interpretations are in many ways superior to the original art that served as his inspiration, and convey the fact that the thing that makes his work so interesting is not how well he copied the source material that inspired it, but rather, the personal touches that he adds to it, all of his own unique creation.
Even now, after all these years, I still suspect he’s not convinced. Let’s face it, Charles is not about to be hired by Disney to accurately render their characters as ceramic figurines, dead-on replicas of what one sees on the silver screen. That is not what Charles’ art is all about. That’s why I have not included any reference material here. It would give the wrong impression, by implying that comparisons are in order. They are not! The minute Charles picks up a piece of wood and begins to carve an image, that interpretation is his own, from that point on. Each becomes part of his World of Wood.
Throughout the months that followed, Charles and I communicated frequently, by phone and by letter, as we got to know each other better. Among the things we spoke about, early on, was Tom. I never asked Charles what Tom was paying him for the carvings he was buying, and then reselling to me. And I still do not know that to this day. But I did make sure Charles knew what I was paying Tom, and insisted that I continue to give him the same or more. It wasn’t the sum that mattered; it was the fact that the creator himself was now going to be compensated, to the best of my ability.
Nor did I try to convince Charles to walk away from Tom, for that might necessitate a lie; and Charles is, above all things, an honest man. If Charles still wanted to continue selling carvings to Tom at what Tom was paying, knowing that he was going to pass them on to me at a huge profit, later the same day, as absurd as that may seem, that was perfectly OK with me. With or without Tom's profanity, the price that I would pay would be the same. But, in one scenario, Charles would get the entire amount. In the other, Tom would reap the lion’s share. Charles would get BLEEPED. And I would get the carvings, either way.
Charles contemplated the situation, and, although, he never told me exactly what he said to Tom, I believe that, in the end, he decided to assume the role that Tom had cast him in, that of “a crazy old man”. And informed Tom, that “he was never going to carve again”, which was exactly the same story that Tom, himself, made up. Tom really didn’t give a BLEEP. He had many cast iron toys in the fire, and bigger fish than I to fry.
After six months or so, during which time Charles and I corresponded often, and he continued to carve away, a grand visit to Mouse Heaven was planned to take place on November 9th of 1980. Charles, and Jean, and Terry, and possibly Charles’ brother John, who often accompanied them on visits, appeared here, early in the morning. Also, on hand for the occasion was our good friend Gerald Haber, who was then the movie director for Hartford TV. Gerald has a fabulous film collection. He brought with him his 16 mm sound projector and a priceless copy of Disney’s Pinocchio in the original Technicolor, which Charles had informed me was his favorite Disney movie. This, at the time, was a rare treat, for even VHS was not yet commonplace, and Disney films could only be seen in theatres.
My wife Eunice made both lunch and dinner with much wine in between, and it was a Monumental day. It also set the precedent for what became an Annual Event. And thus, every year or so, for the next 30 years, Charles and his family visited here for friendship, revelry, and delivery.
At some point in the afternoon, came the highlight of the day, Charles and Jean and whoever they brought with them went out to the car, and a grand parade began, as they marched in with a year’s output of carvings. Each one was a total surprise. And there was always one or two, among them, that totally blew my mind or brought tears to my eyes
This may sound crazy, but I always simply assumed that one element of Tom’s fabricated story was, in effect, a standing rule, that CP was "a cantankerous old timer, who refused to take suggestions or requests, and just carved what he pleased". Thus, I never requested, or even suggested, what I would like Charles to do. I always left the choice of subject matter completely up to him. And his choices never failed to surprise and thrill me. He often came up with obscure characters that I never would have thought of in a thousand years. So he really was doing his own thing, and I was loving every minute, every carving.
On that note, Let the Parade begin!
Yikes! I guess I made it pretty clear that I liked old Mickey. So a month before the first visit, Charles finished this Steamboat Willie. He also picked up on the fact that I liked Felix the Cat. So, he had done the carving below, just before he did that. I think this art came out of a late comic book. The thought occurred to me that Charles needed a little nudge to get on the right track!
Thus, on that first visit, we had a long discussion about what he was using for reference material. It turned out that he really didn’t have any. He was actually piecing scenes together from scraps, bits and pieces of Big Little Books and a few old comics. And he liked it that way. He explained to me how he went about creating “Peter and the Wolf”. It represents the kind of challenge he likes best, one, in which there is no preexisting scene, and he has to create his own from scratch. In this case, he started by carving the tiny red bird “Sasha”, and built the whole thing around that.
Although, I was determined not to Art Direct, or tell Charles what to do, I could also see that he needed to upgrade his inspiration. And so, I gathered together a bunch of books and things and sent them home with him. Among them, was the first Mickey Mouse book and both volumes of the MM Movie Stories, the first hard cover Felix book, a set of vintage Mickey puzzles, and assorted other things. Thereafter, throughout the years, I added to his library with books as Christmas gifts. What he chose to carve from all these things was entirely up to him. And, by God, with no further input from me, he chose well, very well, indeed!
By the next visit, Charles had upped his game. He brought with him this amazing carving of "Felix the Cat" in an airplane. It was derived from the fabulous endpapers in the book of that same name. This carving made me squeal with delight. It remains a favorite till this day.
CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE
Here is another all-time favorite. It was adapted from the best of the four Mickey Puzzles. I hung it in a place of honor right above my desk. And 30 years later, it remains in the same place. Notice how, on these carvings, the simple name plates are beginning to get fancy, and interesting things are happening to the frames.
Each visit, there would be some minor carvings along with the more spectacular pieces. Here’s a fairly early one, "Heathcliff". For some reason this cartoon struck Charles’ fancy. It is a rather charming carving, but Heathcliff always seemed to be a not quite Garfield lookalike to me.
“Colonel Potterby and the Duchess”! This was a complete surprise! I had forgotten this strange little strip existed. It was drawn by Chic Young, the creator of “Blondie”, and ran across the bottom of the page on Sunday. It always reminded me of “Henry”, or “The Little King”, as, like them, there was little or no dialog. As a carving, this is another favorite. The delicacy of it is delightful, the tiny butterfly perched atop the paintbrush, the tubes of oil paint in the box, her skinny arms, her pointed nose, the wooden net. It is really quite surreal. The picture and the frame are one in the same, coexisting on two different planes.
“Sad Sack” was created in 1942, at the height of the Second World War. This simple carving is so typical of Charles, to capture an incidental moment, brushing a shoe, and freeze it in wood for eternity.
“Zambeezi” is a little known character from the Katzenjammer Kids strip, when it was drawn by Harold Knerr. I love the puff of smoke! This is a pretty little carving. The colorful ribbon on the frame works well.