Storytelling in Sand and Shadow

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 24, 2009

In this hi-tech world full of magic that we can see but most of us only partially understand, in this era when stories come at us in every way imaginable via TV, the Internet, even our phones, there is something especially enchanting about the kind of storytelling magic we can watch being made, right in front of our eyes, with nothing but materials even a child can wield: hands, light, sand.

Recently, an extraordinary video has been making the rounds in which Kseniya Simonova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian artist, uses a tray of sand over a light box to tell her stories, using only her hands as paintbrush, pencil, charcoal, sponge, sand sprinkler, eraser, and other tools of the artist’s trade. In the first of the videos below, she unfolds a birth-to-death story of a family and its transformation over time. In the second, she rivets the audience with a powerful war story, that of the German invasion and conquest of Ukraine. These are beautiful pieces of storytelling, and the ephemeral nature of Simonova’s materials and process echoes the themes of her stories.

The videos below come from her performances on—I am not kidding—the 2009 television show, Ukraine’s Got Talent.

Note: I personally prefer watching the first video with the sound off, because I found that the occasional (unnecessary) sentimentality of the music and sound effect choices diluted the poignancy of the narrative. In contrast, I found the sound effects and music very effective in the second (war) video.

Australian magician and performer Raymond Crowe describes himself as "Australia’s only unusualist, … [offering] a captivating combination of visual comedy, ventriloquism, shadow puppetry and magic in every spellbinding performance." He is the man behind the charming hand-shadow rendition of Louis Armstrong’s "What a Wonderful World," illustrating the lyrics with swans, rabbits, donkeys, even a silhouette of the great singer himself. He makes wide-eyed children of us all with his storytelling; it’s art as cozy as it is spectacular, reminiscent of camping trips and bedtime stories, and grandpas entertaining little kids, and making bunny ears in front of the school projector before getting yelled at to sit down. We always did shadow animals when watching Super-8 family films on a screen in the living room. There’s something DVDs have effectively ruled out. So much more convenient, but where is the black barking dog? The wolf face? The misshapen spider or octopus, the only shadow a little sister could manage? *cough* But I digress. See for yourself, and definitely with the sound on:

Watching Kseniya Simonova and Raymond Crowe is a bit like watching tightrope walkers and trapeze artists; you can only ooh and ahh at a talent that is essentially simple but extremely difficult, challenging, requiring both relentless training and artistic genius.

This topic allows me to mention my three all-time favorite books on visual storytelling. All three are brilliant, original, and unique, as good for writers as they are for illustrators:

Uri Shulevitz’s Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books (Watson-Guptill. $29.95 and worth every penny. ISBN 9780823059355).

Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work (Chronicle. $12.99. ISBN 9781587170300).

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Harper Perennial. $22.99. ISBN 9780060976255), which applies to storytelling of all kinds, not just comics. (By the way, if you or your customers have been resisting graphic novels and manga, this book is fantastic for explaining the scope and value of this incredible art form.)

And in case you now have the urge to try hand-shadow storytelling, check out these books:

Hand Shadows: The Complete Art of Shadowgraphy by Lois Nikola. (Home Farm Books. $33.99) ISBN 9781443772624

The Art of Hand Shadows by Albert Almoznino. (Dover. $5.95) ISBN 9780486418766

Hand Shadows and More Hand Shadows
by Henry Bursill. (Dover. $3.95) ISBN 9780486295138

No books have yet been written in the U.S. about the art of storytelling with sand, but Simonova is not the only practicing artist. Ferenc Cakó and Ilana Yahav, among others, are worth checking out. And there’s a great-looking class in Singapore you could take….

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