Children’s book art takes viewers on a ‘Visual Voyage’

Now that the days are short and the nights are long, what could be more magical than immersing in the world of fantastic foxes, curious monkeys, three little bears sitting in chairs and a quiet old lady whispering hush.

The gallery at The College of New Jersey is exhibiting A Visual Voyage: Exploring the Media and Styles of Award Winning Children’s Book Illustrators through Dec. 14. There are more than 50 works of art by 20 artists, including William Steig, Faith Ringgold and Chris Van Allsburg.

In order to win the Caldecott Award, the top prize for an American illustrator, the art must complement the story, not fight or overwhelm it. In a picture for “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” Steig painted a father donkey in a pin-striped suit bowing his violin behind a music stand, a mother donkey in a yellow and turquoise polka-dotted dress in a blue toile chair knitting red yarn – her donkey tail gently laps over the armrest – and young Sylvester, an unclothed donkey, sits on the floor playing with toy trucks and car. The entire family unit is contained within a blue square rug, adding so much to the words “Sylvester Duncan lived with his mother and father.”

“…pictures should convey, enhance and extend the meaning behind the words,” writes Barbara Kiefer, professor of children’s literature at The Ohio State University, in the introduction to the exhibition catalog. “Authors use elements of literature to craft a story; likewise, artists make use of the elements and principles of design, particularly line, shape, color and value, as they decide what to illustrate and how best to do it.”

The exhibit was proposed and curated by Dr. Deborah Thompson, associate professor of elementary and early childhood education. “We though it was a great idea to collaborate with another department, broadening our reach by including both education and art students to understand the collaborative process,” says Gallery Director Emily Croll, who traveled around the Northeast to gather the works from the various artists.

Thompson started by generating a list of 50 to 60 award-winning artists. “Then we went through to see who we could get,” she says. “We made sure we had a balance of gender and ethnicity.”

“Although a picture book contains a reproduction of the artist’s finished work,” writes Kiefer, “the quality of the original media often enhances visual meaning.” Here we see the cut paper collage of David Wisnewski, which fools the eye in seeming to be three dimensional. Wisnewski, who died in 2002 at age 49 – five years after winning the Caldecott – graduated from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and worked as a puppeteer. It was after having children that he began to write and illustrate books, and considered himself a self-taught artist. Wisnewski’s illustrations are created using an X-Acto knife and thousands of strokes and blades on paper. His intricate, multi-layered illustrations begin with sketches that he traces one element at a time onto colored paper, eventually piecing everything together with photo mounts and foam tape.

Many of the artists are multi-talented. Faith Ringgold is a painter, sculptor, performance artist and writer. The Caldecott Award-winning “Tar Beach” comes from her story quilt that combines autobiography, fictional narrative, painting and quilt making. It is based on memories of her parents and neighbors playing cards on the rooftop, under the twinkling stars and the lights of the George Washington Bridge.

Did you know that Polar Express author/illustrator Van Allsburg was a successful sculptor, exhibiting at the Whitney Museum and elsewhere, before he made picture books? His wife, an elementary education teacher, encouraged him to illustrate children’s books.

An artist’s life influences the type of illustrations. Mary Azarian, whose woodcuts have illustrated such books as “Snowflake Bentley,” was a student of 20th-century printmaker Leonard Baskin while at Smith College. After college, she moved to a small hilltop farm in Vermont. There, she and her family farmed with horses and oxen, kept chickens, sheep, a Jersey milk cow and goat, and ran a maple syrup operation. Her life on the farm became the inspiration for many of her prints.

Croll got a glimpse of that world when she drove up to Plainfield, Vt., to pick up the prints from Azarian, and also to Stowe for the work of Jan Reynolds, who illustrates the books she writes about vanishing cultures with photographs.

Illustrators are often influenced by other artists. Van Allsburg admires German Symbolist Max Klinger, Maxfield Parrish and Grant Wood, Steig was looking at Picasso, and E. B. Lewis was examining the work of Winslow Homer, said Dr. Nicholas Clark, founding director and chief curator of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, during a recent visit to the gallery. The museum is a lender to the exhibition.

A picture book is very much like a play, says author/Illustrator Emily Arnold McCully, who won a Caldecott for “Mirette on the High Wire.” “You select a cast, create costumes and set, then arrange the scenes, building to a climax.”

To prepare for “Mirette,” she relied on 1890s paintings of Paris as well as photographs of the city. Her illustrations show the influence of French Impressionism.

While it’s wonderful to see the original “Polar Express” illustration of Santa, with white-gloved arms held high in the air, greeting his minions as elves work the sleigh and red brick factory buildings are lit with gold from inside, the illustrations make one hunger for the story. It’s like looking at chocolates in a display case that you can’t eat. Thankfully, Croll has arranged shelves of the books of each of these illustrators, so visitors can satisfy their desire. Not only is it a visual voyage, but an introduction to new books worth checking out of the library. The exhibit is also perfectly timed with the holiday shopping season, and parents and grandparents will find inspiration for books that make wonderful gifts.

Visual Voyage: Exploring the Media and Styles of Award Winning Children’s Book Illustrators continues through Dec. 14 at the Art Gallery at The College of New Jersey. 

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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