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The Chesley Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: A Retrospective

by John Grant and Elizabeth Humphrey, with Pamela D Scoville; Foreword by Ron Miller

(AAPPL, $45.00, 192 pages, hardback; September 2003.)

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser

We live in an exciting time for fantasy cover scanand science fiction art. The number of highly talented practitioners who freelance for book publishers, movie studios and individual patrons today is as high as it has ever been in memory. We who appreciate such work are most fortunate to be able to enjoy the imagination-expanding creativity of such gifted artists as Kinuko Y. Craft, Vincent Di Fate, Bob Eggleton, Frank Frazetta, Frank Kelly Freas, Donato Giancola, James Gurney, Don Maitz, Michael Whelan, and others too numerous to list here.

We are also fortunate to have an organization that has chosen to honour these practitioners with a prestigious annual award.

Almost twenty years ago, the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (ASFA) presented their first awards in various categories of achievement to notable wizards of the art of the fantastic. Since then, much of the finest work in book covers, interior design, colour and monochrome artwork and three-dimensional art has been recognized with a Chesley, ASFA's prestigious trophy -- named in honour of Chesley Bonestell, the father of celestial art. Since 1985, nearly sixty professional artists have garnered one or more Chesleys, while many others of remarkable talent have been cited as nominees. The awards ceremony, held each year at Worldcon, is a program item to be enjoyed by artists and patrons alike for whom fantasy and sf art is more than just an augmentation to the written word.

Now AAPPL, a comparatively new publisher on the scene, has commissioned John Grant, an award-winning hand at assembling genre-related encyclopedias (The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney Animated Characters, et alia), and Elizabeth Humphrey, herself a former president of ASFA, with assistance from Pamela D. Scoville, co-founder of the Animation Art Guild, to produce a precious jewel of a book. The Chesley Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: A Retrospective is an immaculate, amazingly inclusive celebration of nearly two decades of Chesley award-winning art, painstakingly gathered and faithfully reproduced. The paintings, illustrations and sculpture found within are a veritable feast for the imagination. Grant and his associates have also managed to obtain the insightful comments and explanations of many of the artists featured, a feat facilitated in no small part by the friendships each has cultivated from many years' work within the genre. Malcolm Couch's subtle gallery design effectively underscores the quality of each piece of artwork included. And Bonestell biographer (and Chesley and Hugo award-winner) Ron Miller's insightful foreword on the life of the legend for whom the award is named is concise and informative. The Chesley Awards delivers what you would expect from an all-star production team, and then some.

But ultimately it is the artwork itself that makes this book valuable. We are treated to such impressive paintings of fantastic worlds as Tom Kidd's textured Middle Earth-like cover for Cole and Bunch's The Far Kingdoms (Cover Illustration, Hardcover, 1994); James Gurney's famous motion-filled Byzantine Waterfall City (Colour Work, Unpublished, 1989); and Bob Eggleton's Over the Rainbow (part of the artist's display for his 1999 Outstanding Achievement Chesley), whose media are provocatively identified as "oils and human ashes". There is Escher-like work, too, as in Rob Alexander's Sinja's World (Colour Work, Unpublished, 1997), wherein a child is drawing on a sidewalk either a starkly realistic three-dimensional sub-street level staircase and door or an escape route to a world of imagination. Michael Dashow's The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche (Cover Illustration, Paperback, 1998), for Peter S. Beagle's story collection, stands out for its whimsy, as Todd Lockwood's Death Loves Me (Interior Illustration, 1997) does for portraying the erotic and mysterious nature of its subject (Death, in the form of Persephone) in support of Tanith Lee's story.

The authors have chosen to feature the Artistic Achievement winners -- the grand prize of the Chesleys -- with anywhere from seven to thirteen significant paintings for each of the years in which they won. Therefore, the work of Maitz, Gurney, Frazetta and Freas -- the only multiple-year winners -- covers almost one-third of the book. This is not a bad thing, especially if you are an admirer, like I am, of the work of these four gentlemen; it's just the way the numbers worked out. As a result, the work of the remaining fifty-two Chesley winners fills the other two-thirds of The Chesley Awards.

This time with Humphrey at his side, Grant has once again effectively combined precise scholarship with marvelous visual entertainment to bring us a crackling sit-through, although his skill and perseverance as a researcher comes to the fore here. One can only imagine the frustrating difficulty Grant and his team encountered in obtaining the rights to reproduce the work of the nearly sixty artists contained in the book. In his preface to the second appendix (Chesley Awards Nominations 1985-2002), Grant hints at the difficulty, as he writes:

This listing is as complete as we have been able to make it -- and certainly more complete than any other we have been able to discover -- but we're aware that there are still lacunae ...

Let me say that the "lacunae" are in no way obvious -- not, at least, to this reviewer -- much the same as when a concert pianist is the only one in the theatre who knows s/he has hit a wrong note. As a first appendix, Grant and Humphrey provide informative thumbnail biographies of the artists covered.

I rarely refer to a book as being "valuable", but The Chesley Awards certainly is. It is at once a historical sourcebook for the most creative artwork of the past two decades and a superb gallery book capable of giving hours of entertainment. I understand the hundred or so copies that were available at last year's Worldcon in Toronto sold out quite soon after the convention opened. It was an incredible feat by an incredible book. All involved in its creation have good reason to be proud of it.

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