Heart and Humor: The Picture Book Art of William Steig," on view through April 25 at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., was planned long before the artist's death last October at the age of 95. Nick Clark, founding director of the museum, said he had planned the exhibit "just about from the time of the museum's opening."
In the fall of 2002, Clark, along with the show's curator, Jane Bayard Curley, traveled to Boston to meet with Steig and his wife, Jeanne, to choose pieces of art for the exhibit. During their visit, Steig suggested that the museum also put together an exhibition of his wife's sculptures, in concert with a show of his drawings. Clark and Curley immediately took to the idea of pairing the two creators' oeuvres.
Curley recognized two main themes in William Steig's work, at least one of which was also prominent in Jeanne Steig's sculptures: garbage. Curley called it William Steig's "fascination with trash—that looking at what people don't value and what doesn't seem important can lead to finding treasure." Zeke Pippin's harmonica, Sylvester's pebble, Pearl's amazing bone—these are all found objects, discarded by others, that take on significance and importance to Steig's characters. In the same way, Jeanne Steig's creations, which she affectionately calls "Trashworks," combine collected bits of found wood or glass or metal, assembled into 3-D collages.
The other theme that struck Curley in William Steig's work was "his sense of wonder and worry—two sides of a coin." She explained, "He had a tremendous capacity to wonder about life. And as Jeanne would say, that turned into worry in his real life; he was 'a champion worrier.' But in his children's books, that took the shape of a sense of wonder. Amos in his boat, and Abel in his tree—these are two examples of Steig's hero wondering about their predicament."
From Known to Unknown
The show features 72 pieces in all, ranging from Steig's first book, CDB! (1968) to last fall's autobiographical picture book, When Everybody Wore a Hat. But when visitors enter the exhibit, they may be drawn initially to the prominently displayed artwork from the popular Doctor De Soto, Shrek! or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, toward which the exhibition is heavily weighted. Clark explained the strategy: "Let people move from the books they know to the books they're not familiar with. Because [they're proceeding with] a spirit of positive recognition, they're more likely to embrace [an unfamiliar] book."
Clark said that even though the Eric Carle Museum is called a children's museum, it draws multigenerational families and audiences, so the exhibits need to appeal to a wide range of spectators. There is even an element of surprise for those who may be familiar with some of Steig's characters. "With Shrek!, a lot of people are surprised because they know the movie before the book," Clark said, "and their first reaction is, 'That doesn't look like Shrek.' It gets the cart back where it belongs."
Adults have also widened their horizons, he asserted. "Many know [Steig] through his work at the New Yorker, and they have their eyes opened to his children's book work." But the museum's main mission is to introduce children to art and to make it accessible and approachable. Rosemary Agoglia, curator of education at the museum, offers kids a way into the works with an array of questions designed to help them gain access to the paintings' subjects and themes. "She's brilliant at opening the doors to ways of thinking about what they're seeing," says Curley.
In addition to the rotating exhibit, where William Steig's work is on display, and the anteroom connecting gallery, where Jeanne Steig's sculptures are mounted, a permanent exhibit of Eric Carle's work displays the collages from his picture books.
The museum boasts a wide array of books, plus animals and other book-related items for sale in a large bookstore, which grossed $740,000 in its first year.
A Hall of Fame
The museum has featured some of the biggest names in the field of book illustration. Eric Carle extended the invitation to Maurice Sendak for the inaugural exhibit in November 2002. Nancy Ekholm Burkert followed Sendak, and then Mitsumaso Anno. "We wanted to pay homage to the Japanese," Clark recalled. "There are 20 museums devoted to children's books in Japan, and they make no distinction between fine art and children's illustration. That's what we're trying to do, to get children's book illustration into a more esteemed genre in the fine arts."
Leo Leonni (whose artwork, along with Sendak's and Carle's, is also featured on the museum's logo) followed Anno. Clark said that Leonni had had a big influence on Carle, not only in their shared interest in illustration but also because Leonni got Eric his first job in May 1952 at the New York Times. The next exhibition displayed the work of several Russian artists, including Vladimir Lebedev. "After the revolution, some of these artists realized they'd have an easier time promulgating their avant garde aesthetics through children's books," Clark said. "The exhibit offered an opportunity for people to see the interplay between creativity and politics."
Clark also worked closely with professors at Amherst College, which has a strong Russian program, and classes from the entire five-college community came to view the artwork.
A Dr. Seuss exhibition will follow the Steig show in May, and Clark and Curley are currently putting together an exhibition of Chris Van Allsburg's artwork.