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Every picture tells a story: Visual tales of David Wiesner

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, talks about the show of illustrator David Wiesner .

  • Opening show of illustrator David Wiesner, at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

  • Image © David Wiesner, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. A scene from “Flotsam,” a 2006 picture book about a wondrous underwater world; it earned David Wiesner his third Caldecott Medal.

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, talks about the show of illustrator David Wiesner .

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, calls Wiesner’s work “luminous.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, pages through one of the books by illustrator David Wiesner at the show.

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, talks about the show of illustrator David Wiesner .

  • A reading nook at the Wiesner exhibit GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A video of the illustrator plays at the exhibit, “David Wiesner & The Art of Wordless Storytelling.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, talks about the show of illustrator David Wiesner .

  • Image © David Wiesner, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. A scene from “Flotsam,” a 2006 picture book about a wondrous underwater world; it earned David Wiesner his third Caldecott Medal.

  • “Bugs,” from a cover image Wiesner crafted for the children’s magazine “Spider.” Image © David Wiesner, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

  • A scene from “Mr Wuffles!” Wiesner’s 2013 picture book about an imperious house cat that discovers a spaceship of tiny aliens. Image © David Wiesner, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.All rights reserved.

  • Image © David Wiesner, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Invasion of the giant peppers! An image from Wiesner’s book “June 22, 1999.”

  • Wiesner’s 2001 design for the poster for National Poetry Week. Image © David Wiesner, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

  • An image from Wiesner’s 2010 book “Art & Max,” for which the artist built small models of lizards to help him in drawing the book’s figures. Image © David Wiesner, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.



Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2017

Octopuses sprawled in armchairs and reading books; tiny mermaids riding on squids. Frogs that skim above the ground on mobile lily pads like flying carpets. And a boy who makes friends with a small cloud at the Empire State building and rides around on it.

In the dreamlike, fantastical books of David Wiesner, the pictures are so vivid they tell much of the story on their own.

A new exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst offers a retrospective on Wiesner, one of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary picture book artists and authors. Born in 1956 in suburban New Jersey, Wiesner has won three Caldecott Medals, the prestigious award for children’s book artists. Only one other artist has ever won three of these honors. (Wiesner also has won three Caldecott Honors, a runner-up award.)

Wiesner, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), mostly has used pictures to tell his stories. “David Wiesner & The Art of Wordless Storytelling,” which runs through Nov. 5, showcases the work of an artist who has studied a breadth of images over the years — comic books, surrealist and Renaissance paintings, film and more — to fashion a distinct style of storytelling.

“For me, the stories grow out of the images,” Wiesner said during a recent phone call to his home in Philadelphia. “I look for what emerges as I develop the art. There’s always a visual trigger.”

Creating stories without text invites readers to develop their own interpretations of what a story is about, he added, in essence making them collaborators in the creative process.

“I like leaving a lot of things open to imagination,” he said.

Though his most recent book, “Fish Girl,” is a graphic novel (written in collaboration with children’s writer Donna Jo Napoli), Wiesner has based most of his stories on visual sequences and narratives that, as an accompanying catalog about the new exhibit explains, “have a strong element of world-building.”

“While not all of Wiesner’s work is wordless, it is these mute narratives that demand the most of viewers,” writes Katherine Roeder, who teaches art history at George Mason University. “These books tell stories about storytelling and magic; the liberating qualities of the imagination are Wiesner’s most pervasive and consistent motif.”

‘High and low’

That’s a roundabout way of saying Wiesner’s books are fun to look at. From the richness of his layered watercolor images — Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, calls them “luminous” — to the mix of whimsical and sometimes bizarre themes, books like “Tuesday,” “Flotsam,” “Sector 7” and “June 29, 1999” conjure imaginative worlds that are also full of humor.

In “June 29, 1999,” for instance, a young girl’s unusual science project — sending trays of seedlings into space via small balloons — seems to produce even stranger results, as giant cabbages, peppers, turnips and other vegetables start falling from the sky.

In “Flotsam,” which netted Wiesner his third Caldecott Medal, a boy on a beach finds an old, barnacle-encrusted camera, and when the film from it is developed, all manner of wild underwater visions are revealed: a mechanical fish swimming with real ones; turtles with seashell houses on their backs; seahorses staring at a tiny flying saucer and its crew of bubble-helmeted aliens.

It’s not hard to see the links between low-budget science fiction movies and the giant vegetables of “June 29,” or between comic books and surrealist art and the colorful images in “Flotsam.” Wiesner says he took in a wealth of images and influences from childhood, when he first began drawing.

“It was all over the spectrum, high and low [culture],” he said.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” had a particularly big impact on him when he saw the film in 1968. “I was 12, and it just blew me away — the way it looked, the way the images were framed. I saw it over and over.”

Superhero comic books, and cartoons like “The Road Runner” were also inspirations; as an older teen, he soaked up images from painters such as Salvador Dalí and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a 16th-century Flemish artist. He didn’t study painting formally, he said, but by the time he arrived at RISD, “all these different [influences] began coming together.”

At RISD, he joked, he had “a valiant battle” with oil paints before moving to watercolors, his preferred medium ever since. That allows him to paint over his base drawings and still see their outlines, thus closely integrating drawing and painting — though his highly detailed watercolors, layered over time, also mean his books can have a long gestation period, usually taking a year or more to complete.

At the exhibit

The Carle exhibit, which features over 70 original watercolors by Wiesner, includes numerous images from his books and other projects, such as work from his portfolio at RISD. The show also has examples of early pencil sketches and drafts of work that served as templates for his finished paintings.

The exhibit, first shown at Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, includes some examples of the materials that influenced him, such as a 1960s comic book, “Fantastic Four,” that largely dispensed with text.

“That was one of the the first things that made him think, ‘I can tell a story without words,’ ” said Keiter.

Keiter notes that Wiesner has used a number of props to create his figures; for example, he used three-dimensional models of the lizards at the center of his 2010 story “Art & Max.”

And for his 2013 book “Mr Wuffles,” a tale about an imperious cat perplexed by a tiny spaceship of aliens it finds in its house, Wiesner attached a video camera to a thick wooden stick and followed his own cat, Cricket, around his home to film its movements at ground level.

“That’s a great way to get a view of the world from a cat’s perspective,” said Keiter.

For “Fish Girl,” his graphic novel, Wiesner says he wanted to try his hand at something different. “I had this big heap of drawings that I’d been working on awhile, and I wasn’t sure where to go with them. It seemed like a project for a much bigger book, and as I watched graphic novels come to the fore, I started thinking that might be the place for them.”

Since graphic novels have far more art than picture books, Wiesner recast some of those drawings and did many new ones, in ink and watercolor, to speed up the process; he and Napoli co-wrote the storyline for “Fish Girl,” a tale about a lonely mermaid who moves onto dry land, develops legs and finds friendship with a young girl.

The whole process proved to be “a lot of fun,” said Wiesner, who added he has some ideas for other graphic novels. “Having done it once, I think I can develop a better plan of attack for the next one.”

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

“David Wiesner & The Art of Wordless Storytelling” is on view at the Eric Carle Museum through Nov. 5. For visiting hours, admission prices and additional information, visit www.carlemuseum.org. This exhibition has been organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Its presentation at The Carle is supported by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


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