Where they started from: New exhibit pairs artists’ childhood work with published illustrations

  • Children’s book author and illustrator Grace Lin of Florence has curated a new exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum with her friend Jarrett J. Krosoczka, a fellow children’s writer and artists from Florence.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Work by Juana Martinez-Neal, a children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Arizona. She created the artwork at the top of the picture when she was 10; the image below is from her book “La Madre Goose.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Grace Lin adds some hand-drown artwork to “Then & Now,” the exhibit she as curated with Jarrett J. Krosoczka. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lin’s contribution to “Now @ Then” includes artwork she did at age 15, at top of photo, and an image from her book “When The Sea Turned To Silver,” which was a National Book Award finalist in 2016. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lin and Krosoczka discuss adding story elements and themes to the walls of their show. The two friends have co-curated two previous group exhibitions of artists, both at the Rhode Island School of Design. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Grace Lin and Jarrett J. Krosoczka discuss adding story elements and themes to the walls of their exhibit “Now & Then” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lin adds some hand-drawn artwork to one section of wall of the new exhibit. She and Krososczka hope young children who visit will be inspired to create their own art. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “House in New Hampshire,” a drawing by Jason Chin at age 7. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Artwork by Jason Chin for “Pie is For Sharing,” a 2018 book he illustrated; watercolor on paper. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • A graphite drawing Jeff Kinney — author of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series of books — did in 8th grade. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • An illustration from Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Meltdown.”  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum/Jeff Kinney

  • “The Giant Fried Egg Machine,” a drawing Barbara Lehman did at age 12. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum/Barbara Lehman

  • An illustration from Barbara Lehman’s 2017 pciture book, “Red Again.” Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum/Barbara Lehman

Staff Writer
Published: 1/2/2020 8:54:30 AM

When they look back on their own careers as children’s book authors and illustrators, Grace Lin and Jarrett J. Krosoczka are both struck by one theme in particular: creating their early artwork at a family kitchen table, and wondering how they might ever be published themselves.

In addition, Lin, who is Taiwanese-American and grew up in upstate New York, doesn’t recall ever seeing Asian faces in the stories she read as a kid (and there were almost none in her own community and schools, she adds). So even though she loved art from an early age and developed real ability as a young teenage illustrator, she had a hard time imagining herself becoming a professional.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” says Lin, now a highly acclaimed artist and writer who lives in Florence and has published close to 30 children’s books. “Or at least you don’t feel you can do that.”

But in fact those possibilities do exist. That’s why Lin and her good friend Krosoczka, also of Florence, have co-curated a new exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. “Now & Then: Contemporary Illustrators and their Childhood Art” pairs examples of childhood art and professional work by Lin, Krosoczka and 17 other artists, in some cases showing some notable stylistic connections between the early and later work.

The show, which runs through May 10 at the Amherst museum, offers work by some well-known artists such as Jeff Kinney, creator of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series of books, and up-and-coming talents like Oge Mora, whose debut book “Thank You, Omu!” won multiple awards last year (and was also named a 2019 Caldecott Honor book).

In addition, the artists work in a range of mediums — graphite, collage, pastel, digital illustration, acrylic and watercolor paint — and they come from diverse backgrounds: African-American, Latino, white, Asian-American, LGBTQ. The exhibit includes a childhood picture of each artist and a short statement about their contributions to the show.

“We wanted to make this as diverse a show as possible,” Krosoczka said in mid December, as he and Lin were finalizing the exhibit a few days before it opened. “We want kids from different backgrounds to come in here and see someone who looks like them.”

And, he added, hopefully those young visitors will also see that these professional artists once did the kinds of simpler drawings and paintings — crayon dinosaurs, stick figures, lollipop trees and the like — that were likely first displayed on their family’s refrigerator.

In fact, Lin and Krosoczka have designed the exhibit with that theme in mind, as attendees can work on their own drawings there on a “kitchen table” and display them on a “refrigerator door.” Numerous books by the participating artists are also on hand and can be read on a custom-designed “window bench,” and the co-curators have created paintings and drawings on the exhibit walls, too.

Chocolate milk, brown skin, and a home in the country

Krosoczka, who was nominated last year for a National Book Award for his graphic memoir, “Hey, Kiddo,” says he and Lin got to know each about 20 years ago while living in Boston, not long after both had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). They eventually curated two shows at RISD of artwork of fellow graduates, including one with the same “Now and Then” theme.

Lin notes that they began talking in the past year or so about doing another exhibit along those lines, one that would showcase some lesser-known but talented artists whose work they both liked. They then approached the Carle about the idea, and the museum was enthusiastic.

“Most of these artists have not been seen [at the Carle] except for a few who may have been part of a group show, so this is a great chance to check out some of their work,” Lin said.

In some cases, artists they contacted didn’t have much (or any) childhood art saved and so couldn’t be part of the show. With a laugh, Krosoczka notes that the one piece of childhood art Jeff Kinney had — a highly detailed graphite drawing of three desert soldiers/nomads, copied from a “Dungeons and Dragons” calendar — only became available after Kinney appealed to his parents to loan the drawing to the show: It had hung on their living room wall for years.

“Little did I know that I’d peaked,” Kinney writes in his statement about the drawing, made when he was in 8th grade. “I’ve never drawn anything as good in all the years since. I … settled into the world of cartooning, where simplicity rules supreme.”

In several cases, the childhood art of the contributors matches the professional example, either thematically and/or stylistically. Jason Chin was living in a Brookline apartment at age 7 when his parents decided to move to rural New Hampshire. He drew a picture of what he hoped the family’s new house would look like: a box-like structure with a red, triangular roof, with a dog house and three tall trees nearby. It’s signed “To DaD.”

That home ended up having a big impact on Chin. His “Now” drawing is from the story “Pie is For Sharing” and depicts an idyllic, small-town setting in rich watercolors. A mother, father and two children get ready for a bike ride; the figures are based on Chin and his family and their Burlington, Vermont, neighborhood.

Oge Mora, meantime, has contributed a drawing she made in first grade; it depicts a little girl with dark skin and includes the text “I have ten people in my family. I had a dog but it died. I am going to get a new cat and dog.” In her statement, Mora writes that the drawing was for a class assignment in which she was asked to pick a facial feature “that made me special. I chose my brown skin and described it as chocolate milk, my favorite beverage at the time.”

Her “Now” art example is a page from her book; the collage artwork, with added paint and pastel, shows people with a variety of skins tones and different clothing styles, all of whom have come to Omu’s home to taste the girl’s delicious stew. “I am still passionate about celebrating skin of all shades and personal narratives,” writes Mora in her statement. “Every child should delight in their differences.”

And then there’s Barbara Lehman, who contributed a drawing she made at age 12 — on lined notebook paper, with holes on the left margin from where it had been ripped from a spiral binder — of an intricate, Rube Goldberg-esque machine that must get fried eggs to a giant’s mouth. Lehman’s adult drawing, from her 2017 picture book “Red Again,” shows the same attention to detail and careful lines and shapes.

“In childhood I loved drawing, but I also had a fascination with simple mechanical things,” Lehman writes. “I loved to make pinball machines out of wood, nails, rubber bands, and marbles as much as I loved making drawings, comics, and little books.”

It’s these kinds of stories and images, says Grace Lin, that hopefully “will inspire the next generation of artists…. We hope kids who like to make art will come here and say, ‘I can do this, too.’”

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

For more information on “Now & Then,” as well as visiting hours and fees at The Eric Carle Museum, visit carlemuseum.org.

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