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And So It Goes

Portrait of author Kurt Vonnegut painted by Lance Miccio as part of a collection based on the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Portrait of author Kurt Vonnegut painted by Lance Miccio as part of a collection based on the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Paintings of writer Kurt Vonnegut’s work are hoped to inspire student interest in the 1969 novel "Slaughterhouse-Five".

Weary eyes slumped beneath a wiry nest of brightly hued hair peer out from a frenetic face, imploringly like they have something to say.

“I like to call it Kurt’s colorful melancholy,” says painter Lance Miccio reflecting on his portrait of author Kurt Vonnegut.

The painting is part of a travelling exhibit inspired by the eccentric author’s anti-war novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five”. It’s one of 50 pieces commissioned by the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis, Indiana to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary.

A native of Brooklyn, Miccio recently brought the show to his alma mater, the College of Charleston.

“I would read the book and if I saw an image that I liked, I would draw it in the margins of the book,” says Miccio.

“Slaughterhouse-Five” is Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical tale of a scrawny, ill-prepared soldier captured by the Germans during World War II. The character, like the author, is imprisoned in a partially underground slaughterhouse and becomes one of few who survive the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

Miccio’s vibrant paintings are a stark contrast to the decimated city in Eastern Germany. But they reflect Vonnegut’s vivid imagery in the book.

“I like to say that Vonnegut writes like a painter. So, I try to paint like a writer.”

Miccio’s Vonnegut influenced visions are chaotic and cartoonesque. Depicted with thick, textured strokes, they invite viewers into scenes more complex than the simplified figures.

Next to each painting, Miccio includes a line or a paragraph; a moment in the book from which the painting is imagined.

“The sky was black with smoke,” reads Miccio. “The sun was an angry little pin head. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So, it goes.”

“So, it goes.” The line appears each time death is evoked.

It was a quickly lifted from the book as a catch phrase; a kind of verbal shrug of the shoulders, you know “life happens”.

But is the line meant to portray the main character’s acceptance of life or it is how he faces death?

That is just one of the many facets English professor Susan Farrell finds fascinating. She teaches at the College of Charleston.

“I think it was really teaching Vonnegut that made me have that aha moment,” says Farrell. “The more I taught the book, the more I went back to it.”

Farrell founded the Kurt Vonnegut International Society, an academic group that studies the author’s work. She also helped bring Miccio’s paintings to the college’s Addlestone Library.

Released in 1969, Farrell says “Slaughterhouse-Five” is often overlooked as a counterculture, college cult favorite; a sort o rebellious fascination to be outgrown.

She insists there’s much to be learned from the irreverent, yet thought provoking look at war, society and religion. Even Vonnegut’s narrative, which takes liberty with the concept of time, offers a lesson.

“He’s very interested in stories and how stories shape our view of the world,” says Farrell. “How we tell stories changes what happens basically in the world.”

Farrell says it is Vonnegut’s humanity that draws people in, his compassion for characters like the pathetic soldier he describes as a “filthy flamingo”.

Like those imploring eyes in Miccio’s portrait of the author, Vonnegut does have something to say. Even as someone who comes from a place of experience as a soldier himself, Farrell says Vonnegut doesn’t come across preachy.

“He doesn’t do it in a melodramatic way or a sentimental way, but in a very matter of fact way,” says Farrell. “I think it makes people feel deeply about the tragedy of war and the devastation that war can bring about.”

Set during World War II, the book’s release during the Vietnam War raised eyebrows and awareness. It’s been embraced and banned because of its anti-war sentiment.

Back at the library rotunda at the College of Charleston, Miccio’s collection of paintings telling Vonnegut’s story has moved on. Both the painter and the professor hope the exhibit inspires students to study Vonnegut’s work.

But on this spring day, the library is empty. So, it goes.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.