BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
When Maria Knier was a child, her father called any little creature he found endearing — Maria and her pals included — a “bezert.” As Knier grew, she continuously pondered what the Bezert might look like and what adventures he might experience.
A creative from her earliest years, Knier studied illustration at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and began to accumulate successes in the field. She enjoyed conceptual communication as a whole, but thought perhaps a book of her own might offer the sort of challenge she craved.
By then Knier was a serious practitioner of Ayurveda, an ancient healing science that focuses on the proper balance of body, mind and consciousness. Perhaps the Bezert might embrace those ideas too?
“I started with about eight illustrations [of] these concepts that I wanted to illustrate and then I laid them down on my studio floor and I wrote about each of them — and that became the first book,” Knier recalls. “I just kept expanding and expanding from the inside out, and pretty soon I had an 88-page storybook about this Bezert that I’ve grown up with and what I thought he might do in life, what’s his mission and what he brings to the world.”
Written entirely in charming verse, “The Bezert” sees the titular character be lured from the safety of his solitary home and embark on a journey of discovery and self-discovery that allows readers to examine their own self-reflective feelings as they come along for the ride. Bolstering the immersive experience, Knier’s illustrations sidestep the preciousness that can plague children’s books in favor of creatively quirky imagery that begs each reader to interpret as we please.
The title character is one-dimensional and drawn in black and white — reminiscent, Knier says, of Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox’s famous brownies. “[Bezert] was just simple, because he was basically the essence of a child,” she explains, “All of the more colorful, weird characters came into his life to symbolize things that we encounter in life — things that seem really big, but you don’t know really until you actually get in there and have interactions with these situations and realize what you’re learning.”
By the end of the award-winning book, Bezert is still black-and-white, but he’s earned his wings, literally and metaphorically. And Knier knew a sequel was in order, leading her to rediscover the three-dimensional creations she loved as a child. “In the second book, he actually becomes three dimensional,” she explains of “A Bezert Adventure.” “He’s not becoming more. He’s coming to life. He learned what he had learned.”
To illustrate that aspect of Bezert’s journey, Knier crafted small puppets and sets in her studio, staging her scenes and photographing them for her pages. The joyful experience would lead her into her next creative endeavor — one that continues to make her a favorite at art fairs across Southeastern Wisconsin.
“I was starting the idea of some sort of a creature in metamorphosis — because I think that we’re all in some sort of evolution, changing and growing different ways,” Knier says of her Totum Fauna, sculptures she says bring her back to childhood moments crafting creatures from damp earth. “I had gone to bed with that thought in my head and woke up at 3 a.m. and started making them right then.”
Knier calls the little beings Totum Fauna, culled from the Latin word for the totality of all creatures. “When I watch people gravitate to one, it’s fascinating, because maybe it’s the color that draws them in, or maybe it’s a stone or gem that’s on them. Sometimes it’s something that reminds them of someone, or their pet, or something from childhood. … They’ll be overwhelmed at first but I’m like, ‘If you just sit with it, the one you are actually drawn to will just pop out for you.’”
And so, on a late-summer Sunday at the Mount Mary Starving Artists’ Show, Knier’s booth teemed with people studying the soulful little faces, picking up this one and that, gazing into their eyes, and waiting for the moment when one would choose them as much they would choose it. Whether they knew it or not. MKE