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At Last,  an Edward Gorey Liberty Puzzle or How It Came to Be

Retired federal engineer and investigator, Gorey devotee Patrice Miller (@aredian_press, shares with us in this month’s blog her experience of bringing a dream to fruition: an Edward Gorey Liberty Puzzle. She is already on the hunt for the next puzzle image. 

Jigsaw puzzles, like QRV, have many benefits.

Early one spring morning in 1961, mom called to me from the kitchen. Walking in, as my face met hers, I noted she had turned ashen. Apparently seeing only the white (sclera) of your toddler’s left eye is unsettling. The phone book ragged as she thumbed; the Bakelite phone worked overtime. I was trundled off to an ophthalmologist. 

There were phone books here too, this time to boost me in the examination chair so that my very small chin could be maneuvered into position for looking into lenses set into enormous frames. The doctor asked over and over and over: “A or B? B or C? Or do they seem the same?” Now this was a lot for a two-year old. Amblyopia was the diagnosis. There would be drops, and patches, and sky-blue cat-eye glasses. My mother’s fretting persisted, pestering the specialist over what else could be done. His response: “Puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles.”  

And so, there were. The first purchases had oversized pieces – “age appropriate.” But I solved them too quickly and my boredom was commensurate. The point of the puzzles – the theory – was that the effort involved in puzzle solving would improve muscle strength, forcing my eyes to work in concert. Looking back, it seemed my childhood was a series of shelves, populated with larger and more complex puzzles.  Specs-free through high school, jigsaw puzzles did prove themselves curative. 

My puzzle-love carried over into adulthood, and blessedly I married a man who, among his many fine attributes, is the shared love of jigsaws. A historic resort introduced me to the lobby tradition of leaving a jigsaw puzzle out for guests to casually solve. Truly, I don’t remember eating and sleeping for three days. These vintage puzzles – from the ‘20s and ‘30s – were like none I had encountered before. The pieces, wooden and hand-cut rather than die-cut cardboard, had a wonderful heft. When placed correctly they almost seated themselves. This seemed puzzle perfection.

Years later, I discovered Liberty Puzzles, a purported modern version of the experience described above.  Could it be possible? To my great pleasure it was – and continues to be. But even better. Removing the box lid, one takes in the smoky aromatics of slightly charred wood. Gingerly lifting the layers of tissue reveals the pieces themselves, neat, chunky, seemingly all different, almost chattering as a hand scoops through. 

Chris Wirth and his Liberty Puzzles company of Boulder, Colorado, make puzzles the new old-fashioned way. In 2005, after nine months of experimentation with wood types, adhesives, and cutting techniques, Liberty Puzzles began their manufacture, printing art with archival ink, laminating to quarter-inch plywood, and laser cutting with computer- controlled precision. As fabulous as all that is, the true magic is in the design: the marriage of subject matter to on-theme shapes called “whimsies.” Clever.  Sometimes fiendish. Pieces that almost fit. Border pieces whose contributions are points. Straight edges in a puzzle’s middle.   

The earliest jigsaw puzzle with a Gorey theme was published by International Polygonics, Ltd. In 1978.  Featuring slightly altered imagery from the Broadway show poster, the drapery held aloft by the skull-cherubs is colored red rather than black. The puzzle measures 15” x 21”; the box states “Dracula / No. D136 / over 500 pieces.”  A yellow label on the cellophane wrapper reads: “BY EDWARD GOREY  WINNER OF MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA  SPECIAL AWARD FOR DRACULA.” Since then, Pomegranate has published 13 charming Gorey images as die-cut cardboard puzzles, ranging from 100 to 1,000 pieces. Laser cut, with specialty pieces, a Liberty Puzzle would be a new experience for the Gorey collector.

Edward Gorey’s cover illustration of the late 1960s Florence Parry Heide’s book “Some Things Are Scary.”

How “fitting” that Chris and company are Gorey fans. As he describes: “Edward Gorey is part of Liberty’s DNA.” An original illustration from Alvin Steadfast on Vernacular Island, a gift from his mom, graces his desk. The company washroom walls are covered with Gorey imagery. The sympathetic sensibilities of Gorey and Liberty Puzzles, for me, could not be ignored.  Crusade might be a tad dramatic to describe my efforts to have this happen. Tenacious is more apt. My cause began nearly 15 years ago – and finally, the pieces fell into place. 

With agreements signed, I sought the perfect image for an inaugural puzzle. I was not so much concerned with a theme as hoping to identify a color image that had not been previously published. The appeal of putting out there something collectors had not seen was high.  Although my tastes leaned toward the bizarre, Chris steered me to seeking an image with broader appeal. The task was more difficult than imagined, as many non-primary works had been scattered to personal and institution collections. Once a desired image was located, cooperation of the owner was needed to secure a high-resolution digital scan for printing. After several false starts, a chat about the quest with collector friend Todd Camp (@toddcamp) led to his suggestion of “Some Things Are Scary.”  

Gorey drew the “Some Things Are Scary” illustration in the late 1960s for the cover of a new book by Florence Parry Heide: before Treehorn, before Gorey and Heide had been introduced. Deeming Gorey’s depiction “too scary,” the publisher chose another illustrator. We think it’s perfect. And so did Liberty. I shared the illustration with Chris Wirth who recognized the illustration as a Halloween puzzle. Keeping in mind that product development can have long lead times, I expressed excitement at the prospect of a Halloween puzzle for fall 2023. Chris corrected me. “Once Liberty has an image, and I set my designer loose – it will be weeks. A 2022 Halloween puzzle is quite possible,“ he explained. I was almost breathless at this point. Checking in with the Gorey Trust, archivist Will Baker located the original at San Diego State University. Gorey Personal Library Collection Curator Linda Salem secured the necessary digital file merely a day after the request – getting us one step closer to realization.

After literally what I referred to as a “strafing” of Gorey images to Liberty for whimsey and cut inspiration, it was time to let the designer think and draw. And now, finally, it’s happened.  Just in time for this Halloween, Liberty created a puzzle that surely would have tickled Mr. Gorey. The design and special whimsies please this Goreyphile: there are bats, and cats, femme fatales, creepy urns, and a motley crew of our friends. Beyond Chris and the Liberty folks going the distance to get ‘Scary’ right, they indulged us by creating a special 50th anniversary surprise.    

Like that curious elixir QRV, a Liberty Puzzle is capable of much. A Liberty Puzzle can frustrate, challenge, enthrall, and delight. Company on a lonely night; addictive – in a good way. Restorative. Energizing. And magnetic. A Liberty Puzzle in progress draws old and new puzzlers to itself. A family feud will fizzle when mutually fraught with a Liberty head-scratcher. The furrowed brows of a compatriot puzzler can incite roars of laughter from the discovery by another of an elusive, long- sought piece. Vocabularies grow. Conversations begin.  As Liberty’s motto reflects: “Sit long, talk much.” The shared experience of puzzle-solving can be transformative. 

I’m not saying a Liberty Puzzle can bring about world peace, reverse global warming, or solve the world’s hunger problems.  But in times of trouble, a great puzzle, like a Gorey story, evokes smiles.  With the world’s swirling uncertainties, each Liberty puzzle poses a question – artistically, cleverly – and delivers an absolute answer. Satisfying indeed.