Solace in art: Eric Carle Museum features first virtual exhibit

  • A two-frame image by LeUyen Pham, part of the virtual exhibit “Art in Place” at the Eric Carle Museum, depicts a busy street … and then a nearly empty one. Image courtesy of the Eric Carle Museum

  • Getting away from lockdown! “Outside,” an illustration by children’s book artist Ryan T. Higgins. Image courtesy of the Eric Carle Museum

  • “Memories,” by Amber Ren, is part of “Art in Place,” the Eric Carle Museum’s first virtual exhibit. Image courtesy of the Eric Carle Museum

  • “Portrait of Edvard Munch,” by Beatice Alemagna. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • “Love in a Time of Fear,” by Raúl Colón. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2020

For the past two months, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, like many museums closed by the COVID-19 pandemic, has tried to stay in touch with the public by offering various online resources, from videos to lessons for making art projects at home.

Now the Amherst museum is staging its first virtual exhibit: a collection of work by children’s book artists from across the country and abroad, who have all created new art since the public health crisis forced them to quarantine.

“Art in Place” has been co-curated by Mo Willems, the Northampton children’s writer and artist behind the bestselling “Pigeon” and “Elephant and Piggie” series of books. The exhibit offers work by him and 20 other artists, with each contributing art — in various mediums, from drawing to film to sculpture — that reflects their experiences or impressions during the pandemic.

Ellen Keiter, the Carle Museum’s chief curator, said the artwork as a whole “really speaks to the power of creativity, with a whole range of emotions — some of it’s sad, some of it’s more upbeat, but overall I think it reflects a real spirit of resiliency and hope, a commitment to sharing.”

The show includes work by artists who have exhibited at the Carle before, such as Peter Sís, a Czech-born artist and writer whose illustrations and paintings were featured in Amherst last year in a major show, as well as work by artists new to the museum, including Beatrice Alemagna, an Italian native who lives in France.

Keiter says Willems, a longtime supporter of the museum, approached her last month with the exhibit proposal. “He was feeling the same way a lot of us have been feeling, the way we’ve been forced to isolate ourselves, and he was looking for a way to help us and to help other artists display their work.” Willems was also inspired by creativity and generosity he’d witnessed online from children’s artists, she noted.

As Willems put it in a letter he and Keiter sent to the artists that invited them to participate in the new show: “This is a terrible time. But we have Science and Art. Science will find the solutions. Art will provide the solace.”

Willems, who could not be reached for comment, has already been maintaining a heavy online presence during the pandemic. He is currently serving as the first-ever Education Artist-in-Residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and in that role he has been hosting regular video art lessons — “Lunch Doodles” and “Thank You Thursdays” — from his Northampton studio.

For “Art in Place,” the pieces artists have contributed “really offer a lot of range,” said Keiter. “We have drawing, animation … some abstract work and some that’s more direct.”

Some of the pieces speak directly to the theme of being alone during the pandemic, she added, while others are less focused on this specific moment and in some cases come from new books in progress.

Each artist has also included a self-portrait and a 100-word statement with his or her work, explaining the origins and creative thinking behind the art. Contributors also talk about “how art has sustained them in this difficult time,” Keiter said.

As one example, LeUyen Pham, a Vietnamese-born author and artist who lives in California, includes a two-frame illustration depicting a winding city street. The first shows sidewalks full of people — women, men and children — and a few cars, and it includes the text line “Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before spring. Everybody who was OUTSIDE ...”

The second frame shows the same street, now completely deserted except for a cat and three small bids, with text saying ” … went INSIDE.”

Another artist, Elisha Cooper of New York City, writes “In this time of isolation, I’ve been painting myself away to other places: a beach in Queens, the upstate NY farm of Maurice Sendak, snowy hills outside Kyoto, Japan, where I went last year with my family. From our desks, we can travel the world.”

The virtual exhibit format does offer some advantages over a conventional exhibit at the Carle, Keiter notes. “It’s such a thrill to be able to put together something as quickly as we did with this. We didn’t have to plan it months in advance or arrange to have things shipped here.” And, Keiter says, an online show also allows artists from distant geographical points to be exhibited together very easily.

For instance, “Art in Place” includes work by Michaela Goade, who lives in Juneau, Alaska and illustrates books for a number of indigenous authors; Julie Morstad, who lives in British Columbia; Alemagna, the Italian-born artist; Hadley Hooper, from Colorado; and some artists closer to the Valley, such as Sandra Boynton (Connecticut), Peter Sís (the Hudson River Valley in New York) and Vashti Harrison (Brooklyn, New York).

Keiter says she and Willems specifically sought artists “from a wide geographic area,” both those who had previously exhibited at the Carle as well as newcomers, including emerging artists and established ones.

The exhibit, which debuted May 26, doesn’t have a specific end date as a physical exhibit would. “We’ll likely have it up at least until we reopen, and then we’ll archive it on the website,” Keiter said. In addition, viewers are encouraged to share their own art made at home during the pandemic by uploading it to social media with the hashtag #CarleArtInPlace.

It’s still not clear when the Carle can reopen, Keiter said, though she and other staff, all working from home, regularly discuss what steps they’ll need to take to ensure safety protocols are in place. The museum hopes to open a number of live exhibits that had been scheduled to debut at this point, including one featuring recent collage work by Eric Carle himself.

“In the meantime, we hope people will enjoy the virtual exhibit and find some sense of community there,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. The exhibit can be viewed at carlemuseum.org.