Thursday, August 6, 2015

I'll Read You A Story: Children's Book Art

Children's book art may be the most important art in all of the art world. Here's why.

1. It's associated to literature, which is associated to reading. Whether we read to others or read to ourselves, the act of reading in itself is the connective tissue of our modern world. Our earliest experiences with reading can define our relationship to literature - and nonfiction - for the rest of our lives.
"The Coronation", watercolor, Gary Lippincott, from The Prince and The Pauper
2. It's often the first art we experience in our lives. Whether it's Eric Carle's hungry caterpillar or Maurice Sendak's monsters having a rumpus with Max, this is our first foray into western art. Colors, patterns, shapes and images are defined to us through our books, especially picture books. Our favorites tend to stay with us as we grow up and wind up inevitable "classics" as we read these to our own children and grandchildren.
"Let the Wild Rumpus Begin!", Maurice Sendak, from Where the Wild Things Are
3. It's keeping the paper publishing world alive. Okay, I don't know if that's exactly true, but reading to children typically feels more "right" with a physical book, and majority of children's books are in color and hard bound. There's a physicality to a child's book that addresses a child's needs beyond the images and sounds. There's touch, texture, even taste (who hasn't chewed a small corner of a book?) that the child's book fulfills to the child. They are loved and read again and again. I still can't imagine an iPad taking the place of the physical book. They sure don't taste as good.

Whether we care to admit it or not, children's book art has influenced all of us. As a child, I drew on my books, I drew what was in my books, I loved my books, and I still do love them. Illustrators such as Arthur Rackham, Maurice Sendak, and Mercer Mayer were huge influences in my art making; my work may not look exactly like theirs but I was in awe of the worlds they created with just a couple of lines and some watercolor.

Mercer Mayer's "Little Critter" character. Wonder why I related to him so much? ;)
In fact, part of the reason I created the "I'll Read You A Story" show had to do with my finding a Jules Feiffer drawing for sale. Jules was the artist behind the chapter book called The Phantom Tollbooth, which was my all-time favorite childhood book. It was about a boy named Milo who is bored with everything until he goes through a mysterious tollbooth (in a toy car) and enters a world that revolves around letters and numbers. The linework was simple, even a little sloppy, but very likeable and perfect for this story, which was written by Norton Juster in the early 1960s.

ToC Page, ink on paper, Jules Feiffer, from The Phantom Tollbooth. This is the actual drawing.
R. Michelson Galleries was selling the aforementioned drawing. I was exceptionally excited about finding it until I contacted them about it, only to find that drawing was well into the five digit price range, which was way too rich for my blood. I did note, however, they represented many living and deceased children's book artists, and after a few email conversations with Mr. Michelson, I managed to work out an exchange that allowed the majority of this show's art to ship to Seattle, which I knew would be a very difficult feat with the individual artists. Most of these illustrators no longer own or sell their published work, and some of them are very hard to contact (I learned that quick).
"Bagheera", watercolor, Jerry Pinkney, from The Jungle Book
For the most part, I chose work representative of picture books for children between the ages 3 - 7 years of age, although some of the book art is for children slightly older (such as Gary Lippincott's two paintings from "The Prince and the Pauper"). All of the art is from published books, and many of the artists have had very long and distinguished careers, such as Jerry Pinkney, Ruth Sanderson, and Scott Gustafson. A few are known not for their children's books per se, but for other projects: Tony DiTerlizzi is best known for his Spyderwick Chronicles illustrations, Marc Brown is known best for Arthur the Aardvark book (and cartoon) series and Barry Moser is an accomplished block print artist.
"Little Jack Horner", oil, Scott Gustafson, from Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose
The work is accomplished, to say the least. Richard Jesse Watson's two pieces are quite large, with one in oil and one in egg tempera paint. "The Waterfall" is in egg tempera: it took him about a day's worth of work to paint approximately a square inch (tempera isn't easy to paint in), and the final result is a rich, complex painting at 19 x 34 inches. Now, just imagine an entire picture book of these! The result was The Waterfall's Gift, a picture book full of textures and colors almost too sophisticated for a child's mind, but he makes it work with his soft palette and strong object placement.
"The Waterfall", egg tempera, Richard Jesse Watson, from The Waterfall's Gift
 In contrast, Marc Brown's and Barbara McClintock's work seems almost painfully simple, but these artists are not catering to 40-somethings, but 4-somethings whose color and object comprehension is far simpler. Marc is Old School - he understands the psychological use of color and shapes and creates his early reader books with hot colored acrylics and mixed media collages, and the kids LOVE it (remember Eric Carle and his hungry caterpillar? That damned thing has been gorging itself for what, 46 years now?).
Image from Eric Carle's A Very Hungry Caterpillar. 46 years of overeating is clearly showing here, but the kids love it, so he keeps eating.

"Dinoslide", acrylic, Marc Brown, from Buying, Training, and Caring for Your Dinosaur
Barbara is Old School but in a truer old school way: her work is reminiscent of the great Randolph Caldecott  and his classic nursery rhyme illustrations, utilizing simple subjects and a lot of gesture and humor. Kids call it "funny" and "silly", and we call it "whimsical", our way saying it's both likeable and nostalgic. We all like it, and therefore, books with art like Barbara's is bearable to read over. And over. And over again.
Randolph Caldecott illustration from A Frog He Would a-Wooing Go
"System", watercolor, Barbara McClintock, from A Child's Garden of Verses
This show has 14 illustrators and nearly 30 pieces of art, each from a page in a book, each with a story, each impressing into the minds of literally thousands of little ones (some now Big Ones like me), coloring their sleepy minds with dogs and cats and dinosaurs and rueful little children much like themselves. In a quiet way, this show is probably more important that some of our regular signature shows: this art is shaping our children, and shaped us. This art is the stuff that inspires little artists to grow up into big artists that eventually get big shows at places like Krab Jab Studio. This art gave us our first connection to abstract concepts and to storytelling, and allowed us the green like to go off and create our own stories.
"It Couldn't Be Done", watercolor, Jon J Muth, from Poems to Learn by Heart
So you see, this is very likely the most important show we do all year. It's not sexy, it's not going to blow your mind. In fact, you may just sort of pass it over. But give it another go-over and if you feel like little soap bubbles are blossoming in your chest, just let it happen, that's what this art is meant to do.
Title Page, watercolor, Barry Moser, from Cat Talk
"I'll Read You A Story" features the following artists: Marc Brown, Tony DiTerlizzi, Scott Gustafson, Cory Godbey, Ruth Sanderson, Barbara McClintock, Jon J Muth, Jerry Pinkney, Gary Lippincott, Barry Moser, Diane deGroat, Mordecai Gerstein and Richard Jesse Watson.

Show runs through September 5th, with an art walk opening August 8th, 6 - 9 pm. Richard Jesse Watson will be in attendance!

~Julie Baroh, August 2015