Artist Nick Bantock's Restless Search For the 'Golden Mean'

DRAWING both knees to his chest and tilting back his chair on two legs, Nick Bantock strikes a perfect balance in the small studio he keeps on an island one hour from Vancouver. It is a pose he assumes frequently, often in conjunction with a roll of his silvery-blue eyes or a wave of his slender hands.

Ever in motion, but always centered, Mr. Bantock has etched, sketched, painted, and penned a dozen books in the last four years. Two of them, "Griffin & Sabine" and "Sabine's Notebook," have sold nearly half a million copies each.

Like Griffin, his restless and brooding protagonist, Bantock says he is engrossed in "the pursuit of harmony and balance." And like Sabine, Griffin's clairvoyant muse, he seems to be finding it. Next month, booksellers are stocking his two latest creations: the final installment of the Griffin & Sabine trilogy, "The Golden Mean" (Chronicle Books, $17.95), and a treasure hunt of sorts, "The Egyptian Jukebox" (Viking, $18.95).

A beguiling blend of Gothic gloom and playful fancy, Bantock's work is most striking for its surreal, if classically inspired, illustrations. While there is no such thing as a typical Bantock, many of his compositions depict mythical beasts and anthropomorphic animals to express transition and spiritual progress. His is a menagerie of griffins and sphinxes, angels and alchemists, a fox in a fez.

Employing image and text in equal measure, Bantock defies categorization. Is he an artist or an author, a painter or poet? Influenced not only by Marc Chagall and Victor Hugo, but also Zen Buddhism, Gestalt psychology, and Monty Python, he says such questions miss the point.

Raised in London, the only child of a petrochemical engineer and a secretary, Bantock credits the solitude of his adolescence with stirring his imagination. "As an only child," he says, "you tend to be more reflective and more creative just to keep yourself from being bored."

After five years in art school, however, Bantock grew uneasy with the pretensions of the London art scene. He took a two-year sabbatical to work at a gambling establishment in the city's seedy East End and then turned to commercial art. As a freelance illustrator for 15 years, he designed book covers for most every publisher in the city.

Seven years ago, he and his wife, artist Kim Kasasian, moved to British Columbia to raise a family. He says one of their four children has already shown an inclination for painting: Last winter, one poured a gallon of latex down a carpeted staircase.

Bantock says that while he became animated at his daughter's stunt, most contemporary art bores him. "It's too heady," he says. "It's got nothing to do with spirit and communication, which is what I'm interested in."

An island-dweller, Bantock likens communication to a ferry journey. Fittingly, the Griffin & Sabine trilogy tells of a couple's efforts to travel outside themselves for a physical and emotional rendezvous. But not everyone interprets the tale as a love story. Construing it as an interior dialogue, some discern an artist's ongoing struggle to reconcile his aspirations and self-doubts. Still others find an artist's descent into madness or his encounter with a dark angel.

Bantock attributes these interpretations to the interactive nature of his books, ranging from the removable letters of Griffin and Sabine to a pop-up version of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.

"The breathing space between words and pictures allows you to chart your own course and choose your own pace," he says. "As you go from one to the other, the constant flipping from left brain to right brain is like a calisthenics of the mind."

Contrary to suggestions that he panders to diminishing attention spans, Bantock may be stretching the minds of many readers. Deciphering his literary and artistic allusions, to say nothing of the elaborate conundrum he poses in "The Egyptian Jukebox," requires a good measure of concentration.

Bantock lives his life with an impassioned commitment to proportion, which is not to say moderation. He holds firm convictions on everything from art to Zen, and he works relentlessly, arriving at his studio at 7 o'clock most mornings.

Around the room are baskets of paint brushes, pens, and pencils rest beneath the windowsill. On a shelf sits a tome called Wicked Words (with such entries as curmudgeon and guttersnipe), which he regards as an antidote to bland prose. Bric-a-brac from "The Egyptian Jukebox," such as a sickle and a clarinet, adorn the walls. A more affected artist might call it installation art.

As a rule, Bantock does not exhibit or sell his original art.

"I don't like showing my work in galleries," he says. "There's so much more satisfaction in putting out a book than having a few people drift around an art gallery wondering, 'Should I like it or shouldn't I?"'

Declining job offers in the film and computer industries, Bantock just completed two more books and launched a design company with a friend, called Byzantium: Immaculate Conceptions. The outfit bills itself as a "midwife" for artists and authors who share Bantock's vision.

Call his work high art or low, pop art or commercial, what matters to Bantock is the rightness of proportion. Balancing the classical with the surreal, oil with acrylic, and image with text, he seeks nothing less than a golden mean.

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