Don’t judge a book (or painting of a book) by its cover

May 28, 2014


A couple weeks ago I visited the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University. There was one very large piece of art hanging on the wall, titled Gray Alice, which I noticed but didn’t pay much attention to. From a distance it appeared to be just a large, boring, dark gray rectangle with some text surrounding the border.

With all of the brightly colored and attention-grabbing art surrounding it, I wasn’t drawn to it at all. But before leaving, someone in my group told us the story behind Gray Alice and the secret to viewing it that made this painting one of the most fascinating paintings I’ve seen.

Gray Alice was created by artist Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival). Tim Rollins worked with this group of kids, many with learning disabilities, who had difficulty reading. They wanted to capture in a painting what it felt like to look at pages in a book and not be able to see the story like other kids who knew the “trick” to making the words on a page come to life. Thus, Gray Alice was born.

If you look closely at the paining, you notice that the text surrounding the border of the painting is actually pages from Alice and Wonderland. The dark gray rectangle is painted on top of the pages to represent what it’s like to look at a book and not be able to read it—they don’t see anything. And if you look even closer—if you know the “trick”—you see that in a slightly darker shade of gray is an image of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, representing the story coming to life for those who know how to read. (Below is a closeup of Alice’s face in the painting.)


After hearing this, I was able to fully appreciate the painting and I also wondered—what other pieces of art that I’ve dismissed as being boring in the past had secrets that I missed? My experience with Gray Alice has definitely made me apply the “don’t judge a book by its cover” saying to art!