On a rainy day, in the cozy air of a quiet living room, the sweet sounds of Ellen Gozian’s singing and the quiet whisper of paper moving through a wooden box fills the air. She’s performing “Pretty Fair Miss,” a traditional South Carolina folk song, using a crankie box.
Crankies are stories illustrated on a scroll, either painted, drawn or cut from the paper. They are pulled through wooden boxes (about the size of bread box), hand-cranked by the performer. Audiences view the moving back-lit images. Traditionally, the stories were hyper-regional.
It’s a traditional folk form, a kind of entertainment that could be described as proto-cinema; in the 19th century, larger crankies would travel from town to town with an orchestra. These days, the moving panoramas are an art form that is often performed in homes or small groups.
“They’re really nice for house concerts, because the venue is so small and people aren’t expecting it. You’re already in a low-tech setting, so it’s a good match,” says Gozian, who is a member of The Early Mays, a folk group, and works as a pianist at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Crankies are accompanied by singing, poetry or instrumentals. Gozian insists it could be used in contemporary settings as well.
“I gravitate toward the folk songs, but I feel like there’s this great potential for it not just being traditional folk songs,” says Gozian. “Because traditional folk songs are great, but it takes a certain kind of person to see their relevance.”
Gozian is one of the founders of Pittsburgh Crankie Fest, to be held on Nov. 18 at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, in Oakland. It will feature eight crankie artists from Western Pennsylvania and Baltimore. The youngest crankie artist performing is 18. Gozian also teaches workshops on how to create crankies at the Wilkins School Community Center.
“Everyone has their own style,” explains Gozian. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Although the styles differ, the gear is the same. Most crankie boxes are similarly built — wooden boxes, with scroll rods, mechanical scroll-tighteners and a clamp light. It’s a simple set-up, but can convey a lot visually.
“Everybody makes their own crankies,” says Gozian. “My first crankie is my best, so I want to return to that more intricate style.”
She’s talking about “Pretty Fair Miss.” In this crankie, the story is depicted in a mosaic assembled from pieces of colored rice paper, one of the more fragile mediums. It took Gozian about 18 months to complete; she’d work on it on a table in her living room every day after coming home. She’d hold down the pieces with coins as she arranged them, and hope that her cat didn’t mess with them during the night.
“If it wasn’t held down by coins, I’d breathe on my rice paper and all the pieces would just blow away,” Gozian laughs.
The result is a crankie that’s about 56 feet long, comprising beautiful, vibrant mosaic-style tableaus. It’s a Civil War-era tale, set in South Carolina, recalling the Odysseus and Penelope story of a soldier returning from war and his wife not recognizing him. The colors are brilliant and evocative as they move through the box, transporting the viewer from a quiet living room into to a warm, long-ago summer.