Bob Staake Talks About Creating A Mythology By Creating 'The
Orb Of Chatham'
"Is 'The Orb of Chatham'
Since the book was published
in the summer of 2005, it's by far the question I'm most commonly
This, of course, doesn't surprise
me -- in the least. It could be worse. I honestly can't imagine
a more horrible scenario than if people didn't ask me the question.
No author, after all, wants to face a public that isn't reading,
or are at least curious about, his book.
Even when I first sat down
at my computer to create that first illustration for ''The
Orb of Chatham' -- the one that appears on the cover showing
a mammothly heavy black Orb sitting silently in the grand den
of a Shore Road mansion -- I knew the question would come and
I would have to decide how to deal with it in a way that didn't
provide finality for the reader -- and effectively close the
In many ways, that illustration
of an impossibly huge, unyielding ball-shape is a visual metaphor
for the question itself -- it's the thing that I can't ignore
-- even if I tried.
There IS a right way, and
a wrong way, for me to answer the question -- but at the end
of the day, my answer doesn't matter -- only the reader's does.
"So is 'The Orb of
Chatham' real?". My answer will always be the same:
"I fully believe the story."
In a selfish effort to escape
the heat, humidity and grating Midwestern accents of Saint Louis
in August, in 1995 we purchased a summer home on Main Street
in the historic Old Village neighborhood of Chatham, Massachusetts.
Our joke was that the home may be 300 yards from the Atlantic,
200 years old -- but it's only inhabited by 100 ghosts. It just
needed some paint, some plaster, some shingles -- and an artist
stupid enough to buy the place.
When we decided in 2003 to
pack up and move fulltime from Saint Louis to the house on Cape
Cod, I had the luxury of time on my hands. Working from a small
temporary studio in my basement, I'd fill my days (and evenings)
on my freelance assignments -- working on an illustration for
The Washington Post one day, the spreads for a children's
picture book the next, a quick cartoon or two for MAD
magazine the day after, some character designs for a popular
animated show for kids later that afternoon. If I've been fortunate
to build a successful career as an illustrator, it's because
I've managed to avoid boredom by consciously choosing to work
with an ecclectic variety of clients who couldn't be more different
from one another. There's no common demoninator to The Wall
Street Journal, Hallmark Cards, American Express
and MTV/Nickelodeon -- except maybe for the fact that
I've created art for them all.
Of all the illustrators and authors
I know, I consider myself one of the luckiest. NOT simply because
after doing this professionally for over 30 years I get to pretty
much do what I please with little interference from a well-intentioned
editor or an art director who would rather see a background color
being more yellow than blue, but because I get to live -- and
work -- in Chatham. How many people do you know who can work
on their children's book in the afternoon, and then be pulled
Pied Piper-like into their backyard to the hourly chiming of
the Methodist Church bells down the street or by the sight of
a fox trying patiently to seize a duck on our wetland pond?
The truth remains, had I stayed
in Saint Louis and not moved to the Cape, I doubt I would have
ever created such an audacious work as 'The Orb of Chatham'.
For me, at least, I had to be here to create this book.
In the Fall of 2004, I started
reflecting on all the odd stories I'd been told by my neighbors
in Cape Cod. How a woman went mad in the house next to mine and
how the innocent looking home remains haunted by her ghost. How
the eery glow of the lighthouse in Chatham washes across the
pitched roofs of exactly five homes in the neighborhood (including
mine). How on late night walks through the Old Village, at certain
spots one may feel as if they are being inexplicably followed,
and when they stop to look back -- nothing.
Then, of course, I was also
told by two people -- on different ocassions -- about a mysterious
black orb that was said to have visited Chatham in the 1930s.
They said if I mentioned it to others, particularly longtime
residents of Chatham, that they would laugh it off and deny the
event ever occurred -- or say that it was simply a hoax. -- just
some local folklore -- scant on details, short of evidence, understandably
intriguing -- but an urban legend and little more.
But what if the story, what
if 'The Orb of Chatham', really did happen? Could evidence
be found? Could clues be revealed by the witnesses who spotted
the Orb on that summer night in 1935? What connections did they
ave to one another? Was there a deeper story here -- one that
could be revealed and pulled back like the layers of an onion?
By taking the very thin premise
I had been told of a strange, monolithic orb visiting a small
fishing village on the outer elbow of pre-war Cape Cod, my goal
was to build the bigger story -- one that asks far more questions
than it provides answers -- or any singular answer. Structured
as a mystery, the story is only comprised of 293 words and 13
illustrations -- and if the book has been able to captivate and
intrigue readers both young and old, it is because it seeks their
active involvement in fully "fleshing out" the storyline.
Of the more than 35 books I have illustrated
and/or authored, 'The Orb of Chatham' was not only the
first I finished completely before even offering it to a publisher,
then once I did, I've never been offered a contract to publish
a book faster -- getting a committment within a few hours of
showing it to the good people at Commonwealth Editions
in Boston. Publisher Webster Bull's immediate response was succinct;
"I love it!", followed up by the ubiqitous question,
"is the story real?".
'The Orb of Chatham' wasn't a book I even considered showing
to any of my other publishers like Random House or Viking
or Simon + Schuster for two reasons: all would have surely
viewed it as "too regional" and anything but mass market
-- and if they did get behind it, they'd fail to push it first
on Cape Cod -- and then hope for it to gain an audience as it
worked off-Cape. But Commonwealth Editions shared my vision
for the book, and if it has had any success, it is due greatly
to their committment to the project -- and their risky decision
to publish it.
It's also interesting to note
that 'The Orb of Chatham' that you hold in your hands
is NOT the book I originally envsioned. The story and art is
unchanged, but I originally saw it as a much smaller book --
no bigger than 6" x 6". It is only after talking with
my publisher that I was convinced a larger, more standard size
book of 8" x 8" would better suit its categorization
as a graphic novel -- one that would appeal to adults as well
as kids. More important to me was that the book retain its "democratic"
appeal -- the story and the resolution of the mystery being one
thing to one reader, quite another to the next.
I'm flattered by those who
read 'The Orb of Chatham' and assume the story and illustrations
were the result of a decade or more of blood, sweat and spilled
india ink at the drawing board -- but the truth is another matter.
All the art for 'The Orb of Chatham' was created digitally,
drawn not by paintbrush but by a computer mouse and in Photoshop
3.0 -- a version of the software so antiquated that only
two people on the planet use it; me and, well, okay -- just me.
Imagine trying to "draw"
the Wayside Inn on Main Street with a bar of soap in your right
hand. Okay, now try and draw a 19th Century cemetery. For anyone
who thinks this is easy or amounts to some sort of technological
short cut, you clearly don't understand that a computer is far
more temperamental than a palette of gray watercolors. For me,
the computer is but a tool -- one that is wielded no differently
than a pen, a brush or a smudge of pastel. It's just that since
1995, I prefer to paint on a computer screen -- rather than on
It was also essential that
the visual style I used was somehow in sync with the Depression-era
period in which the story takes place. For that reason I considered
it important to create the art in black and white and in an aesthetic
highly influenced by the American Regionalist movement of the
1930s, particularly the meticulous paintings of Grant Wood. Other
children's book illustrators have been highly influenced by Wood,
though few give him the credit he so duely deserves.
Crucial to the credibility
of the story, the scenes depicted in the book HAD to look like
the actual environments, and because I have walked these locations
hundreds of times and am happily blessed with a 'photographic
memory', they were done without the aid of preliminary photos,
sketches or visual reference -- in vivid, and hopefully eery,
monochomatic grays. In the end, it's the imperfect nature of
my photographic memory that gives the illustrations any organic
and impressionistic aura -- and if I made any mistakes with the
scenes, I could easily defend the art by saying "well, this
is how I imagine the scene would have looked in 1935". Art
isn't a science -- it's a fantasy world -- and a happily forgiving
A reader emailed me to say
how excited she was to come to Chatham after the book was published
-- and to recognize the clock tower of the First Methodist Church
on Main Street which is depicted in 'The Orb of Chatham'.
She was so excited to realize that the scenes in the book are
faithful to the actual landmarks and locales -- when she used
the end paper map provided in the book to see the other sites
first hand. That's the sort of engagement that makes an author/illustrator
The story, combined with the
art, is intended to evoke a dreaminess -- an almost ethereal
quailty -- one that almost guides the reader into another dimension,
the incompleteness of each illustration allowing each reader
to fill in the gaps. For example, I have always believed that
it is as important for an illustrator NOT to show things, as
it is for him to show things, to a reader. The cover illustration
showing the huge orb sitting in the center of the room? The illustration
is actually titled 'Before The Fireplace' -- though I
have provided no clue whatsoever that the Orb obscures anything
-- particularly a fireplace that would clearly be the overt architectural
centerpiece of such a room. In illustration, what you don't see
is often as important as what you do -- and it certainly opens
up endless possibilities for sub-plots and speculation.
People have always talked
about the amazing light evidenced on the Cape, particularly water-surrounded
Chatham, but I've always been more mesmerized by the amazing
quality of the night skies here -- the way the moon backlights
against the clouds, the blanket of summertime stars, the lighthouse
beam sweeping across the black sky. It's a mysterious place,
Chatham is, and being a relative newcomer, perhaps I see this
with a hyper-sensitive eye -- though appreciate it no more than
any longtime resident of this quintessentially New England town.
In the end, the book culminates
with a huge question mark -- and though it tells the tale of
an event that took place 70 years ago, it suggests that the story
may not in fact be over -- and is indeed ongoing. COULD 'The
Orb of Chatham' remain hidden under the mysterious waters
of this quaint little Cape Cod Village? Did it arrive here via
space, or roll to Chatham from somewhere else -- right across
the ocean floor?
You need only hold the book
in your hands to initiate the process of witnessing a far bigger
story, a far richer mystery, a far heftier steamer trunk of evidence,
for the artwork on the pages of the book contains a hidden "code"
-- one that can only be unlocked by going to the OrbOfChatham.com web site.
Five cryptographic clues are literally
buried in the art, carefully and meticulously planted there by
an illustrator 110% committed to the belief that interaction
can be created between the traditional literary world and the
online environment to instill a tantilizing synergy -- one in
which you're never quite sure which came first; the web site,
or the book. Ultimately, it is by melding both worlds -- traditional
print and the internet -- that empowers and indeed elevates the
importance of each individual reader. Without an engaged, piqued
and curious reader, a project like 'The Orb of Chatham'
simply cannot survive.
Those addicted to crossword
puzzles and word games will breeze through the questions that
allow one to 'unlock the code' at OrbOfChatham.com. Others will have to work each riddle,
but I promise that if you stick with the clues and solve them,
the ride is worth the effort. Better yet, the web site includes
really creepy music that adds another layer of eeriness to the
Those who have deciphered
the cryptic clues have reported being stunned at what they have
found when they have successfully ventured inside the Orb and
witnessed its secrets. And does the evidence inside reveal once
and for all the "solution" to 'The Orb of Chatham'
mystery? For some, it will -- for many, it will completely explode
any hypothesis they might have previously formed by reading the
book. The story is a Moebius strip -- it curves and sweeps, and
often derails, yet it always comes full circle.
Connections can be made from
one piece of evidence to the next. For example, a line can be
drawn tying Orb witness Isabel Porter to an enigmatic painting
discovered in fellow witness Walter Snow's Shore Road mansion.
The two words "Stage Harbor" are revealed to be a mind-bending
anagram. There's a reason why the Orb would rise and float before
the black clockface of a church steeple. Even a seemingly innocuous
number, omnipresent in 'The Orb of Chatham' mystery conjoins
a stunning group of events both historic and contemporary. Additionally,
that number only appears crytographically in two legal documents
-- a 1928 map of the Town of Chatham, Massachusetts and a genealogy
of the Kennedy Family. The story is that bizarre.
Do I know how 'The Orb
of Chatham' ends? Yes, I do. I've followed the clues, I've
looked at the evidence -- and I've tied up the mystery. But no,
I'm not telling you how I've solved this story.
In the end, when you unlock
the secrets, you will believe 'The Orb of Chatham'.
What you chose to believe
as an individual reader is entirely up to you.
Art Of The Orb Of Chatham' was first exhibited at the Munson
in Chatham, Massachusetts. Selected illustrations from the book,
reproduced as giclees and pencil signed and titled by Bob Staake,
were displayed June 19 - July 2, 2005 to coincide with the release
of the book. If you are interested in purchasing one of these
unique pieces of artwork, please visit this page
a book signing, literary event or speaking engagement with the
author/illustrator, please visit this page.
the Book Reprinting of Hi-Res Artwork:
and publish examples of 'The Orb Of Chatham' artwork or a photo
of the author/illustrator to coincide with any media interviews
or reviews, please