It’s easy, after you’ve lived in the Valley for a while, to take it as ho-hum reality that this place is full of artists. But swing by Richard Michelson’s downtown Northampton gallery for the (23rd annual) Illustration Exhibition, and it’s hard to remain complacent about the remarkable richness of the arts scene. It’s not that we have lots of artists in the sense that, say, a tourist destination has lots of artists who solely paint the local landscape in order to sell to folks who want a well-crafted memento. When it comes to kids’ book illustration, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fertile Valley—not only do we have an overabundance of illustrators, we have an overabundance of the best illustrators in the country.
Lest that seem like hyperbole, Michelson points out a recurring phenomenon that’s particular to these annual affairs.
“More than once,” he tells me, “when the Caldecott [award for childrens’ book illustration] is announced in January, the illustrations that won have already been up on our walls.”
He adds that one collector flew in from South Korea solely for the opening reception.
And the numbers tell the tale: the exhibitors have garnered a collective 12 Caldecott medals and 29 Caldecott honors (the runners-up). That kind of concentration of winners might seem inevitable when you factor in another aspect of Michelson’s gallery. When I ask him about other galleries that show childrens’ book illustrations on their own or in concert with “fine art” offerings, he tells me, “We’re pretty much it.”
Maybe that’s down to a perception of high art versus low, of art for art’s sake versus mere illustration for hire, or maybe it’s because collectors have tended to focus more on fine art offerings. Whatever the case, Michelson’s gallery is the standard-bearer.
That means, necessarily, that the cream of the illustration crop shows up on his walls as a matter of course. Even if you don’t peruse kids’ books, some of the names are bound to be familiar: the gallery shows the work of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, and boasts work from Marc Brown (creator of Arthur), Mo Willems, Norton Juster, Eric Carle, Barry Moser and Tomie DiPaolo. And that’s among other big names.
When I ask Michelson how many of the artists are local, his answer proves astounding: “Almost all of them.”
What’s immediately striking about the illustration work gracing Michelson’s walls is how it compares to other, more strictly realist works hanging nearby. Illustration may be second-class stuff to many a “fine artist,” but the abilities required to produce illustration are no less demanding (and may even be more so) than those of non-illustrators. Illustrator Ruth Sanderson is something of a chameleon, reproducing with startling skill the styles of many eras and schools of painting. Eric Velasquez paints in a style that’s at once dynamic and quite lifelike, a particularly demanding task.
Most kids’ book illustrators seem to embrace a highly personal style, a visual signature that’s unmistakable. Take Mo Willems, for instance, one of the current rock stars of the illustration world and author of Knuffle Bunny and Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus. His work is readily identifiable even at 20 yards away, full of characters rendered in a mode that seems childlike with its big splashes of color and outlined figures, yet sharply honed and beautifully composed.
Nearby, you’ll find where some of the inspiration for Willem’s style came from: the works of N.M. Bodecker, who died in 1988. Bodecker’s images appeared in places like Harper’s, The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire in addition to children’s books, and they are filled with energetic linework that scribbles into being a strong sense of whimsy.
At the other end of the scale you’ll find no less distinctive but far more realistically rendered images. E.B. Lewis offers visions that often look quite like reality, less whimsical but no less dynamic in their deft compositions. His work often focuses on historical subjects, bringing them to life in a manner at once nostalgia-tinged and colorful.
Fans of otherworldly beings can enjoy fairies, angels, pixies and the like from Rebecca Guay, Tony DiTerlizzi and Ruth Sanderson. All three artists offer depictions of fantastical worlds, but bring them to life with, to varying degrees, nods toward realism.
It’s worth noting, too, that even the older works in the Gallery—including classic images by Dr. Seuss, Barry Moser and Eric Carle—are almost all the work of Valley artists. It’s quite clear that the area is nearly a one-stop-shopping locale for editors in search of illustration talent.•
23rd Annual Illustration Exhibition: through Jan. 15, R. Michelson Galleries, 132 Main St., Northampton, (413) 586-3964, rmichelson.com.