Childhood as a ‘state of being’: Carle museum exhibit revisits American modernist ‘Nura’

  • An undated self portrait, oil on Masonite, is centered among several prints by Nura Woodson Ulreich in the exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “White Lily,” 1929, oil on canvas, by Nura Woodson Ulreich, is included in the exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kitten figurines of wood and “Poise,” of terracotta, both undated, by Nura Woodson Ulreich, are part of the  exh ibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Girl with Cat,” undated, watercolor and gouache on illustration board, by Nura Woodson Ulreich are part of the exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A gallery copy of “Nura's Garden of Betty and Booth,” 1935 by Nura Woodson Ulreich, is available for visitors to “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This undated self-portrait, oil on Masonite, by Nura Woodson Ulreich, stands out in the exhibit exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A page spread from “The Mitty Children Fix Things,” 1946, by Nura Woodson Ulreich, on display in the exhibit exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection.   STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A gallery copy of “Stories: Written by ____” by Nura Woodson Ulreich, is part of the exhibit exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. The book features illustrations by Ulreich and blank pages for the reader to write their own stories.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “The Fish Boy,” 1928, oil on board, by Nura Woodson Ulreich, part of “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A page spread from “Nura's Garden of Betty and Booth,” 1935, by Nura Woodson Ulreich, part of an exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Cats and Duck,” c. 1928, a hooked rug designed by Nura Woodson Ulreich, part of the exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Prints by Nura Woodson Ulreich are centered around an undated self portrait in one part of the exhibit exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering  an  American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection.   STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “At Home,” circa 1929-1932, painting by Nora Woodsun Ulreich. The painting is part of  the exhibit, “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection.   Image courtesy Eric Crale Museum

  • “Fresh Spring Breeze,” 1927, by Nora Woodsun Ulreich, part of the exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • “Tête a Tête,” 1927, by Nora Woodsun Ulreich, part of the exhibit “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, leads the Gazette on a tour of two exhibits,  “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection,” in the central gallery, and “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley,” in the east gallery.  All artwork from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A color separation from “Ed Emberley’s Little Drawing Book of Horses,” 1990, marker on paper, included in the exhibit “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An illustration from “Suppose You Met a Witch,” written by Ian Serraillier, 1973, pen and ink on paper, included in the exhibit “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An illustration from “Suppose You Met a Witch,” written by Ian Serraillier, 1973, pen and ink on paper, included in the exhibit “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley” at the Eric Carle Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Copper printing blocks included in the exhibit “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art Chief Curator Ellen Keiter pauses at a giant print for the 1963 book “The Story of Paul Bunyon,” written by Barbara Emberly, and the set of woodcut blocks used to create it, during a tour of the exhibit “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/29/2022 4:37:09 PM

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art has featured the work of a wide range of artists over the years, some better known than others.

Nura Woodson Ulreich is likely one of the lesser-known ones. As Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, notes, Ulreich “pretty much fell off the map” after she died in 1950 at age 51, even though she was an acclaimed and successful artist at the time.

But the American painter, printmaker and children’s book author, better known simply as “Nura,” is now enjoying her first public reintroduction in some 70 years. “Finding Nura: Rediscovering an American Modernist from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection,” a new exhibit at the Carle Museum, offers a range of work that showcases her modernist, Art Deco approaches to art, in particular her colorful, stylized portraits of children that reflect roughly equal measures of innocence, mystery and surrealism.

Indeed, the exhibit’s guest curator, Nicholas B. Clark, titles his accompanying essay “Nura and the Enigma of Childhood,” noting that much of her work showed a “commitment to capturing the theme of a child’s imaginative life, which she acknowledged emanated from her own experiences and dreams of childhood.”

“What’s interesting about [her children’s portraits] is that you almost never see an adult figure,” Keiter says. “It’s very much a children’s world … And she gave them a very distinctive look with rounded faces, the almond-shaped eyes and small mouths, and a sort of aloofness as well.”

In “At Home,” for instance, a watercolor painted circa 1929-1932, a young girl with Taylor Swift bangs and a doll-like face looks up from a book in her lap to gaze without expression at the viewer; next to her are a dog and cat, created along childlike lines. The painting offers a fair share of odd, cubist angles and proportions and reflects what Clark, in his exhibit notes, call Nura’s “commitment to stylization and pattern.”

More broadly, the artist’s paintings, as Clark puts it, “capture the essence of childhood, imbuing it with empathy while avoiding the overly sentimental. ... The figures are distinctly hers, but are not of any real child. Nura’s art expresses a state of being rather than a statement of reality.”

Clark, a former director and chief curator of the Carle who now lives in Cambridge, said in a phone call that since Nura and her husband, the Hungarian-born artist Edward Buk Ulreich, opted not to have children, “She experienced children vicariously, if you will, through her work.”

One of the exhibit’s most intriguing paintings, “Self-portrait,” touches on this. The oil on masonite work is centered on the head and neck of a woman with closed eyes — it’s presumed this is Nura, Clark says — who is framed against an image of a guitar (Nura was an accomplished guitarist) and some sheet music. Perched on the woman’s head is a round-eyed child who looks directly at the viewer; a cluster of seashells and tiny flowers float at the bottom of the painting.

Born in Kansas City in 1899, Nura studied art there, in New York at the Art Student’s League, and then in Chicago, where she met her future husband. The couple lived in Paris and later in Vienna in the mid-1920s, where Nura began absorbing modernist artistic styles, which she later made a hallmark of her work when she and Buk settled in New York in the later 1920s.

Both artists gained critical acclaim, placing work in major museums and private collections, though the Great Depression did not make things easy. To help make ends meet, Nura began illustrating children’s books in the 1930s and subsequently wrote them as well, Keiter says. Her very first book, “Stories,” dispensed with text and included blank pages next to her lithographic images, inviting readers to create their own tales.

Nura’s next-to-last book, “The Mitty Children Fix Things” in 1946, received strong reviews, Clark notes, including in two major New York publications, the New York Herald Tribune and The Saturday Review. Her last book, “The Kitten Who Listened,” was picked up by a major publisher, Harper & Brothers, a forerunner of today’s HarperCollins.

But though her career was going well, Nura died in 1950 after a lingering illness, and Clark says the rise of abstract expressionism in the 1950s art world, likely coupled with the lesser regard with which many female artists were generally held, meant that her art “just really disappeared rather quickly from view.”

The renewed focus on Nura’s portfolio comes from art dealer and collector Kendra Daniel, who with her husband, Allan, has substantial and varied art holdings. The couple, who split time between New Jersey and a home in the Hilltowns, have given more than 500 works of art to the Carle, Keiter says, and Kendra Daniel also sits on the museum’s collections committee.

As Clark notes, Kendra Daniel has long been interested in forgotten women artists from the early 20th century, especially those who did illustrations for children. So when Daniel discovered one of Nura’s paintings, “The Fish Boy,” in an antique shop 30-odd years ago, she was intrigued and began learning more about the artist, and she and her husband eventually bought much of her art from Nura’s estate. (The unframed “Fish Boy,” just as Daniel found it, is part of the show.)

“I was attracted to the Modernist style reflected in the exuberant colors and bold composition; the painting became the foundation of our Nura collection,” Daniel says about ‘The Fish Boy’ in Clark’s essay. “I was further intrigued when I discovered that Nura had written and illustrated eight children’s books between 1932 and 1950. ...We are proud to bring Nura to the attention of the public with these impressive works of art.”

Clark says he knew very little about Nura before he began pulling the new exhibit together. Now, after researching her career, including talking to descendants of her husband and finding many old press accounts of her work, he’s a fan: “My hope is that this exhibit will spur some more interest in her fascinating career.”

“Finding Nura” runs through Nov. 6.

‘I Could Do That!’

Continuing at the Carle Museum through June 12 is “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley,” a show focused on the prolific Massachusetts children’s illustrator and author whose career dates back to the 1960s (he’s now 90 years old).

Emberley, a Malden native now living in Ipswich, won a Caldecott Medal for his illustrations in the 1967 book “Drummer Hoff,” written by his wife, Barbara. In the 1970s and 1980s, he created a popular series of instructional drawing books for children that showed them how to turn basic shapes and designs — even thumbprints — into more creative illustrations.

“I used those books all the time when I was growing up,” Carle curator Keiter says.

Yet Emberley, whose work has embraced a range of mediums including printmaking, also brings incredible detail to much of his work, such as the painstakingly created lines of his drawings in another early book, “One Wide River to Cross,” from 1966. His books also make use of innovative touches such as stencils, die cuts, optical illusions, clip art and more.

The exhibit includes sketches, handmade book dummies, and other materials to offer additional insight into the work of what the Carle calls “one of America’s most versatile picture-book illustrators.”

More information on both these exhibits is available at  carlemuseum.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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