Saturday, May 18, 2013

I want to be like him when I grow up.

Yesterday we went to the Tacoma Art Museum to see "Beyond Books: the Independent Art of Eric Carle". Never heard of him? I'll bet you have. If you have children I know you have. So far he has authored or illustrated (usually both) over 70 children's picture books including the perennial favorite "The Very Hungry Caterpillar". TAM hosted a show of his book illustrations a few years ago and this companion exhibit shows the much wider scope of his work.

Mr. Carle was born in the U.S.A. in 1929 but his family moved back to Stuttgart, Germany when Eric was about six (bad timing). He endured ten years of "dismal" German schools, food shortages, and Allied bombing. As an aside, Stuttgart was the center of ball-bearing manufacture and the Nazis had buried the ball bearing factories deep under downtown Stuttgart. The allies correctly surmised that if they stopped production of ball bearings then the rest of the German arms manufacturing would literally grind to a stop so they went after the buried factories ruthlessly. When I visited Stuttgart in 1957 it was still mostly rubble.

After the war was over, Carle, whose talent had long been recognized, was appointed to the Stuttgart Academy of Art where he spent four years. His mentor there was so well regarded that clients came to him seeking his students for art projects. Carle's first commissions were for posters for theater productions and artwork for book covers. By age 23 he had "a pretty good portfolio and 40 dollars in my pocket" and decided to return to the U.S.A. In New York he quickly gained a reputation for book cover art and magazine illustration. His work for a children's book turned into a commission to do a picture book of his own -- and 70+ books later, he is still doing so.

Apart from his book illustrations, he does what he calls "Art-Art" -- work he does just because he wants to. Like his book illustrations, most Art-Art is paper collage using vibrantly colored, textured paper that he paints himself. His collages, even his seemingly simple, childlike book illustrations are carefully thought out and built using meticulously drawn acetate cells. He also does two- and three-color linocuts, huge brightly colored abstract paintings on Tyvek, and recently has taken up digital photography. He did a stage design and costumes for a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. (The costumes were made from Tyvek also.)

At age 84, Carle looks a lot like somebody's kindly, hearty, vigorous grandfather. He has never made a distinction between his Art-Art and his commercial work. Both are important to him; both are genuine fun to him. Even painting the sheets of colored paper is fun to him. One of the videos accompanying the TAM exhibit shows him working with a group of children in the studio of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (which he founded and partly financed) in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is very clear that working with children is fun for him, too. When he came to TAM for the show opening and book signing (Beyond Books: The Independent Art of Eric Carle, ISBN 978-1-59288-029-4, 2012) he asked that children coming to the signing bring art work of their own so he could talk to them about it.

When somebody asked Duke Ellington if he was going to retire, the response was: "Retire from what?" I suspect that would be Eric Carle's answer also. I want to be like him when I grow up.

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