Jennifer Uman knew she wanted to work with Valerio Vidali the first time she saw his work. She just didn't know how to say it — Uman, a self-taught artist who lives with her husband Noah in East Nashville, doesn't speak Italian, and Vidali, an illustrator from Italy, doesn't speak English.
Uman found one of Vidali's paintings on the Internet, and was immediately drawn to it. "It's very rare that you see something you haven't seen before that moves you in that way," says Uman, whose eyes open wide beneath her thick bangs when she's telling a story. "I just couldn't keep my eyes off of it. So I emailed him."
The email she got back, however, wasn't what she'd expected. In broken English, Vidali explained he didn't understand her email. So Uman used Google Translate, a notoriously imprecise means of language translation, to communicate her respect for his work. Thus began a years-long correspondence between Uman and Vidali, one that may have been marred with weird verbal inconsistencies but carried with it an intense love for each other's idiosyncratic art.
In 2010, Vidali visited Uman in New York, where she was living at the time. In an email sent shortly before he arrived, Vidali told her that he was going to feel like Jemmy Button in America. At first, Uman didn't understand. She thought maybe her friend's reference had been mistranslated, but Vidali insisted that it was correct. That was how Uman learned the real-life story of Jemmy Button, a boy from a native tribe in Tierra del Fuego who was abducted by the crew of the HMS Beagle in 1830. The captain of the ship gave the boy's family a mother-of-pearl button in exchange. The nickname Jemmy Button came from that transaction.
Jemmy's story unfolds like a combination of The Odyssey and a Pygmalion myth. While in England, Jemmy was treated as an exotic novelty and quickly integrated into the life and manners of the Victorian upper class. He was returned to his island home a year later a changed person, and apparently retained most of his knowledge of the English language and customs years after. Jemmy's story is a tale of homesickness and the restlessness that comes when a person who has changed dramatically returns to a home that hasn't. This, Uman and Vidali decided, would be the story they would tell. Uman enlisted the help of her friend Alix Barzelay, also a Nashville resident, to write the text.
For a friendship that could only have happened in the Information Age, Uman and Vidali's work habits remained extraordinarily conventional during the process of making Jemmy Button. The two artists sat side-by-side, painting large sheets of paper with gouache, oil and water. They kept an Italian-to-English dictionary that Uman found in a thrift store between them, but they rarely spoke, sometimes spending hours in silence making one large piece — like the scene of the ship's hull underwater, Jemmy's tiny red face a curiosity amid an ocean of colorful fish.
"I'm not educated in art," says Uman, "so I like experimenting a lot. When we were trying to come up with the character of Jemmy, it made sense to me for him to be made of oil and water."
Vidali, a precise artist whose work had already been published across the world, told Uman that such a combination simply wasn't done.
But Uman was undaunted. "I said, 'Let's make it up! Who fucking cares!' "
Such is the balance the two artists strike in each other. Uman's work follows in the tradition of outsider artists like Margaret Kilgallen and Bill Traylor, while Vidali's work leans toward great mid-century illustrators like Charley Harper, or even the expansive backgrounds of early Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Uman is unpolished and detailed, Vidali is lush and graceful. Their styles don't mix as much as they intertwine.
"I've always been a loner," says Uman. "But when I met Valerio, we sat with that dictionary between us, and Jemmy was there." Her voice enunciates each syllable carefully.
"We put our heart and soul into the story when we were together because of our language obstacles," she says. "I imagine Jemmy had those, too."