Index: Taras Shepelavy

An Epic Burlesque: Kotlyarevsky’s Eneida

These plates are from an edition of Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s 1798 poem Eneida, a ribald retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid. Kotlyarevsky transposed Aeneas, the Trojans, and Greek mythology into the folklore of Ukrainian Cossacks. It is among the first major works written in Ukrainian, and is a cornerstone of Ukraine’s national literature. Wonderfully, it also defines the very notion of a burlesque – vulgarizing lofty notions like love, family, faith and battle, feigning seriousness in the face of absurdity, and is packed to the gills with slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, and, natch, healthy portions of friskiness…

This particular version, printed in 1969, in Kiev, Ukraine, is, simply stated, one of the most beautifully designed, illustrated, typeset and produced books I’ve ever seen. Sturdy and stout, clad in a satisfyingly course gray canvas, it opens onto a corker of a title page. From the swashbuckling script of the authors name, the elemental block-y-ness of the title, and the illustration of a muscular and languid Cossack/Trojan, it’s a bravura opening gesture. From there, graphically, the book never flags – block after block of typeset verse on heavy cream paper. But the heart of the book lies in the illustrations, by A. Bazylevych, whose style is a deft hybrid of wood block engravings, thick-lined expressive cartooning, and abstract color blocks.

My recollection of the book from childhood is profoundly visceral. I can recall my father reading vignettes that swirled thrillingly in a noggin already stuffed with mythological adventures. But it’s the illustrations that left an indelible impression. It’s a phantasmagoria of soldiers and sieges, gods and devils, maidens and crones, battles and scraps, feasts and revelries, a cosmos of melodrama. Looking at them again after a span of decades, my recollection is immediate and electric – what’s vital in art, in fiction, and in life seems to spring forth in an exuberant, lusty, unruly parade.

Father’s Day

This feels about right, this vignette on the cover of this old HeathKit manual, when I think about my dad, about him being my dad, being his son, and being me. We did a lot of this kind of stuff – building things, kits, electronics, etc… the dynamics of the scene feel very familiar, a working sketch of many genuine memories.  There’s a lot of each of us woven up in the idea of HeathKits.

For him it was a part of his love of understanding the underlying mechanics of how things worked. In this case the project was an Automotive Engine Analyzer. He also build a Vacuum Tube Volt-meter. It’s apt that he liked to put together devices whose purpose was to evaluate other devices. A profound pleasure for him, I think.

For us, then, it was a bridge, a dense lattice that bound us in the moment, and bound us thereafter. Making, doing, building, learning, understanding, crafting. Many of my fondest, most deeply held moments with him, in retrospect felt like this – like the cover, like HeathKit moments.

Below is a metronome we built together. It’s been with me for decades and it’s still one of my absolute favorite objects – built well, simple, natty looking, reliable, and steady – always steady…

Ex Libris Taras Shepelavy, Pt. 2

I sincerely hope that author Maurice L Hartung of the University of Chicago was as impressed as I was with the cover designs to his slide rule manuals. (Also, belated congratulations to Dr. Hartung on the promotion he seems to have received between the publication of the guides.)

Ex Libris Taras Shepelavy


A selection of covers from lost crannies of my father’s bookshelf. Viewing them as an oblique tribute to his memory imbues their designs, for me, with a profound weight. Each is a flag unfurled in celebration of the bracing shock of the new, and the sheer exhilaration of understanding.