Artist and author Curlee’s latest book, The Great Nijinsky, features his acrylic paintings of the acclaimed dancer as well as other members of the Ballets Russes. Curlee spoke with PW about his long-held fascination with Nijinsky, his love for old photographs, and how, after an extensive career as a professional gallery artist, he found himself creating children’s books.
Before The Great Nijinsky, you wrote and illustrated many nonfiction children’s books. But before that, you had a long successful career as a painter. Can you tell us a little about that earlier part of your life?
I earned a master’s degree in art history and thought I’d be a teacher, or work in the museum field. When I was a kid I was always drawing, building school stage sets, things like that, but I never thought of art as a profession. Then when I was in graduate school, I wanted to see if I could paint something myself. So it started as a hobby. It was a gradual process; I had some ideas for paintings and over time I executed them. After I earned my master’s, I began work on my PhD dissertation, but I found I liked painting better and never finished the dissertation.
I was really lucky in that a friend was opening a gallery in New York City and took me on. My first show at his gallery included the painting of Nijinsky in The Specter of the Rose. That was in 1973. In 1974 I did a whole series of paintings of the Ballets Russes. They were life-size paintings and we hung them at floor level so it was as if they were people in the room with you.
What drew you to make that initial painting of Nijinsky, and then to continue to focus on the Ballets Russes?
I love the quality of photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of the slow shutter speed, people had to pose for the photos, which gave the photos a formal quality I really liked. The lighting is also very evocative. That period of history has always intrigued me. I had some photography books from that era that included dancers from the Ballets Russes. I was drawn to Nijinsky’s androgynous pose in the photo from The Specter of the Rose and wanted to paint him. Then when I had to come up with a new show the second year, I decided to dive into more of those photos. So I really began by admiring those early photos of the dancers posing.
Were you always a ballet lover?
No, actually, I’ve never liked ballet that much! I have always been very interested in music—I studied it as a child and people thought I might become a musician, but it just didn’t take. I do like spectacular ballets, like The Nutcracker, and I like the work of Mark Morris, but otherwise I don’t really appreciate dance as an art form. I find the lives of accomplished people fascinating, though, and I found all those old photos very visually interesting.
How did you get into children’s books?
I was showing a series of paintings of 19th-century sailing yachts I called Nautical Variations. A man named Stoo Hample bought one and then came to my studio to see more of my work. He was in show business, but had some connection to children’s books—he was a little vague about that part. He suggested I consider getting into children’s books. I agreed and he put me in touch with HarperCollins. I took my portfolio in, met a few editors, and then they asked me to do some sample illustrations at a small scale, since I had always painted large canvases. So I did the samples, and really enjoyed the process. Then Laura Geringer, who had an imprint there, sent me a manuscript called Horses with Wings by Dennis Haseley and asked if I wanted to illustrate it. Of course, I did! That book was only in print for one year, and it seemed like a one-shot deal; there was nothing forthcoming after that.
But then David Saylor, who had been the art director on that book, called me. He had just moved to Ticknor and Fields, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin. I owe a lot to David: wherever he went he always took me with him. He invited me to come in and talk with the publisher, Norma Jean Sawicki. They suggested I try writing my own book and illustrating it. I said, “I’m not a writer,” but Norma Jean encouraged me to write about something I was really interested in and not try to be a stylist. She said, “Just write as clearly as you can with as few words as possible.”
That’s good advice for any writer! What was it like to try writing after so many years as a painter?
It was very hard at first. Painting came naturally to me, but when I started writing, I could only write about a page a day. When I write, I write straight through, then edit from behind as I move forward. That first book was about zeppelins and dirigibles; it was called Ships of the Air. It took about a year to create and by the time it was ready Houghton Mifflin had folded Ticknor and Fields back into the company, so it was published by Houghton Mifflin. It was a very pretty book. But the very day that my paintings were being photographed for Ships of the Air, David Saylor called to say he had moved to Scholastic and asked if I’d like to do a book about the carving of Mount Rushmore. Of course, I said yes, and worked with editor Brenda Bowen on that book, Rushmore. When Brenda moved to Simon & Schuster, she asked me to come with her, and paired me up with wonderful veteran editor Marcia Marshall at Atheneum. I came up with Liberty, about the Statue of Liberty. I was proudest of that book because it got a full page of coverage in the New York Times Book Review. That was a highlight of my career—it was in 2000.
I did two books with Marcia before she retired and after that I worked with Caitlyn Dlouhy on the other seven books I did at Atheneum. Coincidentally, Caitlyn had been Laura Geringer’s assistant for my first book!
These subjects are very far removed from Nijinsky. How does your fascination with Nijinsky fit into your overall oeuvre, and how was creating this book different from your earlier works?
Nijinsky was always in the back of my mind. He was part of the first big body of work I had ever done, and was always lurking in my consciousness. When the financial crisis of 2008–2009 hit, publishing changed dramatically. I had done 10 books in 10 years, and very few big easel paintings during that time, so I decided to go back to painting. I did three more paintings of Nijinsky, and while I was painting I was also reading about him. So in the autumn of 2009, I wrote the first chapter. I wrote it as a set piece—to set the mood of the book. But that’s all I wrote. I put it away and moved to California.
Then in 2013, I got a call from the George H. W. Bush Library in College Station, Tex., about Barbara Bush’s annual literacy event, in which she read books out loud on a video feed to schools all over the country. She wanted to read one of my books—which was such an honor. In fact, over the years she chose three of my books in a row. That reignited me to complete the Nijinsky book.
That same year I also acquired George Nicholson as an agent; he wanted me to do a book on architecture. But I had just finished the draft of the Nijinsky manuscript and showed that to him. He sent it out and got some very consistent feedback from several editors—but no contract. One of those editors, Yolanda Scott at Charlesbridge, thought it was an idea worth pursuing, but needed more work. So I went back and did a second draft.
Writing a biography is as much about deciding what to leave out as deciding what to include. Your extensive bibliography reflects a tremendous amount of research. What was your research process like and how did you make those decisions?
I read a lot of really good biographies, including one by his psychiatrist and a newer one by Lucy Moore. I first wrote a straightforward biography in chronological order. In the second draft, I made it more personal—I used more quotations from Nijinsky—and I gave it a hook.
What was the hook?
He was the first huge celebrity of the 20th century, before movies. I wanted to include what I thought was important and what I thought was interesting about him.
How do you define important?
Well, you have to talk about choreography and you have to talk about homosexuality. I had to make decisions about the sexual content. George was very old school, with a lot of decorum. He wanted me to keep that very mild. In this day and age, though, I didn’t want to downplay the sexuality. Nijinsky’s life is part of gay history.
Sadly, George died in 2015. The book was now un-agented—it wasn’t until late 2017 that I acquired my current agent, Rick Richter—but Yolanda was interested in seeing the second draft. So I showed it to her and we talked about the sexual content. She said, “Keep it frank, but not salacious.” We actually worked through six drafts before the manuscript was finalized.
There is also the sensitive issue of Nijinsky’s failing mental health. How did you handle that?
Yes, I wanted readers to feel moved about his condition. I kept thinking about the ending of the film Dr. Zhivago, which affected me profoundly when I was a teenager. I always remembered that final poignant pluck on the balalaika string, and when I was writing about the end of Nijinsky’s life, that image came to mind. I wanted my book to end with that kind of moving resonance.
The book has an unusual format; it’s as much an art book as a biography. Can you describe the process of designing the book, and your degree of involvement?
I was quite involved in the design—although, of course, I’m not a designer and didn’t design the book! But I did create a dummy of what should go where, and they worked from that dummy. Then Yolanda had the wonderful idea of teasing out the ballet information to make it look like ballet programs from that era. She haltingly approached me with that idea, and I thought it was great.
And my fingers were crossed for this larger trim size. There were two possibilities and they had to crunch a lot of numbers, but ultimately we were able to do it in a larger format. I have to say that this book is exactly the book I wanted, even though I didn’t know what I wanted. I feel very lucky that Charlesbridge lavished such love on this book. I am a perfectionist and Yolanda is even more so!
Can you talk about what you’re working on now?
I’ve been working on two different biography projects over the past year and then a third project, which is truly a labor of love, but I’m not ready to talk about any of them. And even though I’ve been writing and illustrating my own books for so long, I’d love to take on some illustration-only projects.
The Great Nijinsky: God of Dance by Lynn Curlee. Charlesbridge Teen, $19.99 Apr. 9 ISBN 978-1-58089-800-3