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If Chris Van Allsburg is the fish that got away, then I’m the angler that couldn’t tell the difference between a perch and a pike.  In the late 1970s, when I was art director of The New York Times OpEd page, Chris’s wife, Lisa, brought the newly minted portfolio of her husband to my office hoping that I would assign him an illustration.  The work was amazing, but it was not illustration.  In fact, it was mostly wood sculpture (a bit reminiscent of H.C. Westerman’s surrealist wood boxes).  Van Allsburg, who had graduated with an MFA degree in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975, had already had a couple of shows at Allen Stone Gallery in Manhattan, but an illustrator he was not.  His ironic blend of real and surreal was conceptually perfect for the art world at that time- and, in a weird way, it might have been right for the Times OpEd page.  But for reasons I cannot recall, I never gave him an assignment.  Some time passed and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi was published, and the resit is, as they say…

So, here is a little history.  When Van Allsburg’s sculpture career was in full throttle, he amused himself by drawing pictures during the evening in his apartment because the sculpture studio he rented proved too cold to us in the winter after five p.m., when the landlord shut off the heat.  He hadn’t done much two-dimensional work in college because, he told me, “I did’t study art in high school (I fast-talked my way into art school at the University of Michigan).  I felt out-classed and overwhelmed by the drawing talent I saw in classmates around me. Unaware that drawing was to a certain degree a skill one could learn, I assumed I did not possess the innate ability to do it.”

As a child, he added, he was a “gifted” builder of model cars and planes, and he thought those skills could be easily applied to making objects.  Hence, sculpture became his metier.  And the ones I recalled were mostly transportation related: sinking boats, colliding trains, a flying saucer puncturing the domed roof of an observatory.

The drawings Van Allsburg made on those cold winter evenings were the first so-called “picture drawings” he’d ever done.  The pictures I began drawing were pretty simply compositions, with one or two figures, usually engaged in a puzzling activity.  They were quite refined with respect to the application of tone, but the figure drawing and compositions were pretty naive.”

These early drawings were moody- a result, he claimed, “of conjecturing particular kinds of light”- and had a slightly bizarre narrative quality.  These characteristics lent an “illustrative” quality to the images.  Consequently, Lisa, an elementary school art teacher, encouraged Van Allsburg to think about doing some book illustration.  “To make her case she brought some from her school library, stacks of picture books, which did not provide me with much encouragement or inspiration,” Van Allsburg recalled.  “They were uniformly sentimental and condescending stories accompanied by art that was the same.  If this is what publishers wanted to put into books, then clearly, there could be no interest in the pictures I wanted to make.

Undaunted, Lisa took a half dozen of Van Allsburgs pictures around to different publishers. Much to his surprise, they reacted favorably. Unfortunately, the texts they sent to me, with the hope that I might be interested in illustrating them, were very conventionalthe kind of story that detailed the challenges of small animals going off to their first day of kindergarten.

He just couldnt see making pictures for theses stories.Then, Walter Lorraine, an editor at Houghton Mifflin, suggested Van Allsburg write his own story. And heres the historical tipping point: This struck me, initially, as preposterous. Id never thought about writing, and had never nursed a desire to tell stories to children. But it occurred to me that by writing my own story I could provide myself with picture-making opportunities suitable to my interests and my inclinations. Eureka!

All literature (and especially childrens books) are couched in autobiography, which, Van Allsburg pointed out, does not mean events depicted in the story happened in the life of the storyteller, but it does mean that values and concerns expressed are consistent with those held by the writer. Consequently, my stories suggest that the world is perilous, that some stories are not resolved, nor can all mysteries be solved.

Van Allsburg is obsessed with themes of loss: the loss of childhood, (Polar Express), the loss of imagination, (Wretched Stone), the loss of the ability to fly (Wreck of the Zephyr), the loss of a comforting recognizable reality (Bad Day at Riverbend), and even the loss of the story itself (Harris Burdick). According to the artist, The psychological issues raised in the book generally reflect concerns and interests that are my own. And yet they are everyones concerns. Those who have read these books themselves or to their children can use them as a substitution for personal articulation. In each of his books, there is a personal (universal) feeling that is expressed, often more eloquently than wethe tongue-tiedcan express them to our children (or ourselves).Van Allsburg is our interlocutor and interpreter.

For Polar Express, Van Allsburg responded to an image he saw in his minds eye: A gasping, old steam engine waiting in a winter woodland setting, with only a few empty cars and a lone figure (a boy in pajamas and a bathrobe) approaching. Where, I wondered, was the train going and who was the boy who hesitantly stepped toward it, each footstep crushing through snow? In the process of figuring out the why and where of the train, and the who of the boy, Van Allsburg ended up writing a story about the loss of childhood, but suggestingits possible to retain or maybe occasionally reclaim some part of it.

Van Allsburg admitted that when he draws, he is essentially trying to produce on paper what he sees in his imagination. This is actually fairly tedious.When I am working from models or props, the process is more enjoyable because I am communicating with the subject matter. Few of the pictures I draw allow me to do this. One of the motivations for doing the book Z was Zapped, was the desire to just sit down and actually behold the thing I wanted to draw.

Every literary season I look forward to the work of two or three authors. Van Allsburg is one of them (and for a long while he satisfied that desire with a book a year) because his are not really childrens books, although theyre suited to a childs needs. He agrees. He said that he doesnt think of his books as being so pigeonholed.Nonetheless, that does not mean that I am unaware that the largest part of my audience is children, but I do not choose story ideas or draw in a particular style because of that.Im sensitive to the requirement that a story be told lucidly in language thats not too challenging. I have respect for the youngest members of my audience and as a result do not feel constrained by what some may feel are their limitations.

I wonder today what might have been if I had commissioned illustrations from Van Allsburg for the OpEd. Would this have enhanced or crushed his career as a book author and illustrator? Would he have found his bliss anyway? Would he have conformed to the OpEd approach? Would the sculpture reproduce well? It was around 30 years later that I asked him to illustrate the holiday issue of The New York Times Book Review, which he did beautifully. By then, however, there was no gamble that Chris Van Allsburg would make fabulous illustrationsit was as sure a thing as shooting fish in a barrel.

Steven Heller
Former Art Director of the NY Times Book Review and recipient of the 2011 National Design Award

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