Glenn Cross was born with cerebral palsy and works as though within a ‘different’ time zone.
WRITTEN BY JOHN GASCOIGNE
Characters who conjure visions of Christopher Robin, Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger leap from the imagination of artist Glenn Cross before being penned and pencilled on to a drawing board in his cluttered Eltham studio.
‘Wind in the Wattles’ could be the titular summation of Glenn’s work over more than 30 years, because it’s impossible for any viewer raised in the 20 th century not to be reminded of illustrator Ernest Shepard’s iconic characters who populate children’s classics Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh.
Matching those twin British icons, published respectively in 1908 and 1926, was not a conscious effort of Glenn. But his artistic theme of humanising animals – anthropomorphism – reveals the same cheeky, imaginative flair that London artist Shepard first brought to the lives of children almost 100 years ago.
Glenn, 54, takes a little extra time, measured in days rather than hours, in creating his characters and – now – printing them on cards. The characters start as pen outlines, filled with colour laid down by deft strokes of graphite from Glenn’s Derwent pencil box. At his elbow to choose from are up to five shades of any primary colour.
Apart from a computer-printer setup, the bearded artist could have been Shepard’s contemporary, drawing hour by hour in his cluttered studio beside an expansive hilltop house. I reach it after ascending a narrow, winding road through stands of Eltham’s remnant native forest.
Glenn Cross was born with cerebral palsy and works as though within a ‘different’ time zone. Completion is not predicated on time but is determined at the point at which the artist is happy with the result of his meticulous attention to detail.
To that end, he has joined up with IT-training company ReadyTechGo (RTG) in order to be independent in operating his four-stage art process, its end point being to print his drawings on Christmas, birthday or other cards.
Pencil and ink illustrating has been part of Glenn’s life as long as he can remember. He’s now learning the pre-printing computer processes of scanning and photoshopping in weekly lessons taught by RTG staffer Kim Boscariol, who joined the company last October.
Until recently, Glenn was helped with the card-making computer work by his sister Gay, a graphic designer. “But he was intent on learning to produce his cards from start to finish, and that’s where I came in,” Kim says. “I’ve come to him through the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), in which RTG is a registered Service Provider. “Typically, the NDIS approves a number of hours: 10 in Glenn’s case.”
While the scanning and card-printing appear relatively straightforward, photoshopping is a different story. Kim sums up: “It’s a very challenging process to go through, and he’s done brilliantly.”
When I visit, Kim is at Glenn’s shoulder as he photoshops a scanned version of a green dragon on a boating picnic. The scan has produced an off-white, greyish background, which they want to be pure white.
Within a circular section of the monitor’s illustration, Glenn trains the cursor onto a crosshair, expanding its surrounding section of colour (a green grass area) by 200 per cent to reveal individual pixels. He then clicks on screen-top tabs saying things like ‘Background eraser’, ‘Tolerance’ to replace the off-white with pure white while enhancing the existing colour range.
“Yes, it’s very technical and for someone to be able to apply it requires utter patience,” Kim says of her student, who has it in abundance. Glenn recalls his schooldays as a time when he could walk and take on limited exercise; only in the past decade has he required a wheelchair.
Cerebral palsy refers to a group of disorders that affect the way a person moves. Diagnosed soon after birth, it’s a permanent condition, although it does not worsen. The condition occurs when a part of the developing brain is damaged, and it’s not known how this is caused.
It is not genetic, nor a disease, and there is currently no cure. The severity and symptoms vary with each person. A mild example may be simply a weakness in one hand, but another person may have no control over their movements at all. As well as movement being affected, some sufferers have impaired vision, hearing, speech and learning – four conditions from which Glenn, thankfully, is free.
A helper provided by Surrey Hills-based ONCALLGroup, has also been accessed through the NDIS to help Glenn with his showering, dressing and toilet needs. And three days a week, Mason Gluyas, of the Cerebral Palsy Support Network, takes him to hydrotherapy and bowls venues, and to do shopping.
Importantly, the natural right-hander has a strong grip, as proved by his handshake, and the hand is flexible enough to express his imaginative artistry.
Dragons make up one of several themes among his hundred-plus drawings. On screen he shows a green ‘Mr Dragon’ breathing fire into a furnace on a boat to create steam to turn the propeller, his appreciative guests including moles, mice and wallabies ... in a dinghy, Mr and Mrs Dragon each pull on an oar en route to a picnic... in a vintage car with the hood down, the green couple sit in the back seat behind the badger- driver, beside them their dog being apparently squashed ... a physics lesson has the Dragons heading skyward, courtesy of Mr Dragon exhaling flame into the balloon, heating its air so that it’s less dense than the air outside. Meanwhile, the hat of the balloon pilot, a badger, has fallen off and is halfway between the basket and the horizon.
Here, a Welsh dragon, returned from a day in the coalmines, reclines in a bathtub, beside it the giant jug from which he’s filled it. A reclining mole tickles a canary in its cage as both watch the ablutions in progress.
A hint of the puckish characters from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh pervades the sketches, and Glenn acknowledges he may have given an unconscious nodding to those influences bequeathed by his late father, Ted, an industrial and graphic designer born in England.
Further inspiration, or genetic advantage, has come from Glenn’s mother, Pauline, who pops in during our chat, having returned from a meeting of her East Melbourne-based Victorian Artists Society, whose gallery has hosted exhibitions of her Impressionist landscapes.
Australia is well represented in Glenn’s work. Perhaps symbolising the role of family and friends in his development as an artist is Glenn’s depiction of native animals helping one another. Mammals and marsupials climb on to each other’s back to reach an object otherwise out of reach. So, here’s an echidna clutching an envelope and stretching up from a koala’s spine to reach a post box slot.
Many of the cards will make it down the hill for display and sale at the Eltham Bookshop, on Main Road. “It’s not important how many I sell,” Glenn says. “It is important to know they’re good enough to sell, and I’m grateful to the bookshop owner (Meera Govil), who loves promoting the local community. “At one time I had nine points of sale, but I’ve trimmed it back a bit,” Glenn adds.
“I’m on a disability support pension and I’m not trying to make money.”
The artist loves tenpin bowling and is enjoying the Eltham Men’s Shed, which he joined recently. “They’re great people, very supportive. They’re just around the Corner and Mason (his wheelchair aide) comes with me.”