Reading to children regularly can ignite a love of the written word that they carry with them for life. Book illustrations give children a visual understanding of stories that can inspire their imaginations. To celebrate the artists who unite the written word with pictorial art, the Mansion at Strathmore is presenting the exhibit, “Turning the Page: Children’s Book Illustrations,” through July 31.
“I am always interested in areas where people are surprised or asked to look more carefully at an art form because it will surprise them that children’s book illustration is an art form and there are superb artists doing it,” said curator Harriet Lesser. “Although reading to somebody and being read to is almost engrained to us as one of life’s comforts, it’s not often that we get a chance to see original work and appreciate it.”
The show features a number of pieces on loan from the Mazza Museum in Ohio, the world’s first and largest collection of original art from children’s picture books. “If you can name a famous illustrator, they have their art featured there,” Lesser said. The museum staff, she added, “were so wonderful to us. We chose 41 pieces, and they let us have them on loan. They were as cooperative and as friendly and as willing to share and get this message out as any organization I have ever worked with.” Some of the on-loan pieces include works by Eric Carle, Tomie dePaola, Leo and Diane Dillon, and Marcia Brown.
Part of the multidisciplinary arts center’s mission is to showcase local artists. Seven were chosen to participate in the exhibition.
Chevy Chase-based fine artist, author and illustrator Susan Stockdale considers her inclusion in the show serendipitous. One of four members of an artistic critique group, the women–Lulu Delacre, Jennifer O’Connell and Janet Morgan Stoeke–thought it would be fun to propose an exhibit to Strathmore about them dubbed “The Art of Collaboration” since they have been together for more than a decade. They discovered the planned exhibit and asked to be included. All four have pieces in the show.
“From my perspective as an illustrator, children’s illustrations have become so elevated and sophisticated in the last few decades,” Stockdale said. “When you look back to what they were back in the ’50s and ’60s and you look at what they are now and the opportunities–whether it’s digital art or air brush or acrylic on paper or oil on paper–I just feel like the entire art form of children’s book illustrations has really become so elegant and advanced that it is really fantastic to pull together all of these expressions in one exhibition.”
She has eight pieces in the show from several picture books she has created, including her rendering of ostriches, “Birds that Never Fly,” and her illustration of ptarmigans, “Hiding Birds,” both from her 2011 picture book, “Bring on the Birds.”
Stockdale, who majored in art at Occidental College in Los Angeles, recalls seeing a flamingo standing sound asleep on one leg at a zoo. “My kids thought that was really interesting and I thought ‘Hmmmm. There might be an idea there.” Her first book, “Some Sleep Standing Up,” was published in 1996. Her eighth book, “Fantastic Flowers,” is set to come out in March.
Sallie Lowenstein, a professional fine artist, author and illustrator, called her art a passion. “For me, making a book is making a work of art, only it’s a kinetic work of art because it moves,” she said.
She noticed that Strathmore was planning the show and contacted Lesser about participating. “I think it is really important for people to understand what goes into a book,” Lowenstein said. “I think (the show) is something you don’t see very often. The back story, so to speak, of how a book is put together and what is involved in actually making a book.”
As well as doing commercially produced books, the Kensington artist also does hand bound books as part of her publishing company, Lion Stone Books. Illustrations from two books she has published, “Clothed in Bark” and “Color Song” are featured in the Strathmore show.
“Bark” is hand bound in a medieval long stitch binding with a handwoven spine. Initially done as pieces of art, she decided to make it into a book after positive reviews at an exhibit. “I had so many people come up to me and say ‘You changed how I viewed trees.’ ‘I never noticed trees like I am noticing them now’ (so) I decided to do a book,” Lowenstein said.
“Color Song” is a hand bound accordion book. “I’ve always had a problem that when we teach children color, we teach them ‘This is blue’ and ‘This is green’ and ‘This is pink’ and ‘This is red’,” she said. “We never teach them that there are various colors that fall into that category. This book was originally designed to do that.”
Living in Burma as a child, Lowenstein travelled though Asia and Europe. “My parents took us to every museum in every country we were in just about,” she recalls. With a passion for drawing, she constantly stuffed her school desks full of drawings. By age 15, she was selling and exhibiting her work and has been creating ever since. “I never thought I’d be a writer,” she said. “Not really. I was always a storyteller but I didn’t really become a book person until I was a lot older. …The books are as much a piece of fine art for me as my fine art is.”
Her work is a balance between writing and illustrations informing the readers. “The art is part of the writing for me so when I write, I am seeing the art simultaneously,” she said. “You know a really great picture book is where the art informs the writing and the writing informs the art.” She cites Chris Van Allsburg’s book “Jumanji” as a classic example.
Inspiration strikes when she sees something that fascinates her. “I think being an artist or a writer or an illustrator, whatever you are doing, it’s the ability to keep your sense of wonder that children have so easily,” Lowenstein said. “I think that is where a lot of (inspiration) comes from for me. It’s the sense of wonder I see in things.”
Lesser believes the exhibit will intrigue and delight guests both young and young at heart. “It is (a show) that will start conversations and get people reading and rereading,” she said. “There are people who come in and look at some of the books and say ‘Oh! I remember this’ and they remember a couple of pages. It relates to their lives very closely.”
She hopes after patrons have seen the show they will re-evaluate the connection between the images and the words in books. “Often we think the illustration is there to explain the words,” Lesser said. “Well there are books with no words and the art work carries everything. That is the story. It is redefining the story.”
In conjunction with the exhibit, a workshop on illustration techniques for adults and teens will be offered on July 24 at the Mansion. “I think that would be a real adventure for people,” said Lesser, a proponent of the value of trying something new.
For information, visit www.strathmore.org or call 301-581-5100.