Square by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen: a witty, philosophical debate on the life of the artist and the purpose of art

Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen, Square

Published 2018 by Walker Books, 44p

Square is the second book in the Shape Trilogy created by the amazing duo Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, two artists whose work is defined by brilliant humour, profound, contemporary subjects and originality.

In few words (though generous subtlety) and minimalist pictures we are told about two friends, Square and Circle. Square is a lonesome artist who lives in a secret, underground cave. Just like Sisyphus, Square tries to fill his existence which sometimes seems so absurd.

Illustration copyright: Jon Klassen

Every day, Square goes down into his cave and takes a block from the pile below the ground. He pushes the block up and out of the cave. He brings the block to the pile at the top of the hill. This is his work.

Illustration copyright: Jon Klassen

While creating piles of self-portraits, collections of blocks of stones, with considerable physical effort, Square seems to be happy and to give a reasonable meaning to his life. Until Circle floats by.

“Square!” said Circle. “You are a genius! I did not know you were a sculptor!”

“Ah, yes”, said Square. “What is a sculptor?”

“A sculptor shapes blocks into art,” Said Circle.

“Ah, yes”, said Square. “I see what you mean.”

But he did not really see what see meant.

So when Circle requests a sculpture of himself to be done by the next day, Square feels confused – a circle is perfect, how could he make a flawless artwork overnight? He starts shaping the block, not knowing exactly how to represent perfection. His creative process proves to be a struggle, an exhausting battle with a massive block of stone and the unknown course of the creating practice.

Illustration copyright: Jon Klassen

Drained, after having spent the night in heavy rain, carving the whole block away, Square falls asleep. When he wakes up, he is still desperate:

What have I done? I push blocks. I do not shape them. I am not a genius.

But when Circle comes, he is proven that sometimes art may appear non-existent, imperfect but the emotions it generates are genuine and strong. The creative process is often frustrating and enduring but once we believe in it, the results are surprising. Both the artist and the viewer need to learn to look at the artwork and the world it illustrates.

What Circle saw that morning was beguiling, perfect. All the pieces of rock that square carved were placed in a circle that collected the water rain in a beautiful pool where Circle could see its own reflection.

Illustration copyright: Jon Klassen

Complement Square with Guridi’s Once Upon a Time, a delightful picture book on the power of words and the importance of storytelling in our lives and Ted Kooser’s House Held Up By Trees, a book about the tension between human and nature, beautifully illustrated by Jon Klassen.

This blog is a Book Depository affiliate, which means that if you use my links to buy books on their site I get a small percentage of the selling price, which is not much but is really appreciated.

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