See it in person: Exhibits postponed earlier this year at the Eric Carle Museum resurface

  • An illustration from Astrid Sheckels’ book “Hector Fox and the Giant Quest.” Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • How does a frog play the fiddle? Illustration by Arnold Lobel from his “Frog and Toad” series of books. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Tony DiTerlizzi from Mo Willems’ 2015 book “The Story of Diva and Flea.” Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • E.H. Shepard, who illustrated the orginal Winnie-the-Pooh stories in the 1920s, also did the work for follow-up books such as this, “The Pooh Cook Book,” from 1971. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • An illlustration by Tedd Arnold for the 1993 book “My Working Mom” by Peter Glassman. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • An illustration from “Today is Monday” by Eric Carle. A porcupine finds its quills are good for spearing green beans. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Another image from Eric Carle’s “Today is Monday” finds a snake wrestling with wild strands of spaghetti.  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • A bird and a fish find their places of residence hopelessly mixed up in Eric Carle’s 2015 book “The Nonsense Show.”  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • In Eric Carle’s “The Mixed-Up Chameleon,” the chameleon in question takes on characteristics of multiple other animals. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • An image from the exhibit “Let’s Talk! Animals From the Collection.” Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2020

Who wouldn’t want to escape into an imaginary world these days, given the pandemic, an ugly election season, a struggling economy, and environmental catastrophes sprouting like mushrooms?

Even if that world is aimed at children?

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which reopened for limited visitation in August, has a number of exhibits now on view, two featuring the work of its namesake artist and a third that takes a look at what’s long been a popular theme for children’s literature: anthropomorphism.

“Let’s Talk! Animals from the Collection” features some 80 works from the museum’s vaults that showcase a wide range of animals displaying human characteristics. It’s a colorful and extensive exhibit with artwork ranging as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s, with plenty of more contemporary examples, including some from a number of Valley artists.

From Winnie-the-Pooh to Peter Rabbit, to the Frog and Toad of Arnold Lobel’s perennially popular 1970s book series of the same name, the exhibit also highlights artwork using a range of materials — watercolor, pen and ink, oil, gouache — to illustrate stories in which animal characters are part of enjoyable tales that also “expose human foibles, teach proper behavior, and help children navigate a complex world,” as exhibit notes put it.

Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, says “Let’s Talk!” was scheduled to open this past spring but was then postponed due to the pandemic. She and exhibit co-curator Cathy Mercier, a Carle trustee and a professor of children’s literature at Simmons University in Boston, culled the show from some 300 artworks at the Carle, a process that Keiter says was fun but also “a little painful. It’s always difficult to have to leave some things out that you’d like to include.”

The exhibit is divided into four thematic sections that examine subjects such as “unlikely friendships,” like the bond that develops between a mouse and a whale in William Steig’s 1971 book “Amos and Boris.” Another themed section, “Home and Away,” considers the far-flung adventures animal characters have before returning to the comfort of home, while “Tales of Tails” highlights animals from classic texts — think “Peter Rabbit” and “Little Red Riding Hood” — and looks at the different ways anthropomorphic animals can tell stories to young readers.

The show includes an original watercolor from “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” the 1902 story by English children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter about a mischievous bunny who gets into trouble after trespassing in the garden of his dour neighbor, Mr. McGregor. Other older art examples include work by E.H. Shepard, who illustrated the original “Pooh” stories by A.A. Milne in the 1920s as well as later expansions of the books.

Then there’s work by regional artists such as Tony DiTerlizzi, Barry Moser, David Costello and Astrid Sheckels. The latter, who lives in Greenfield, is the author and illustrator of “Hector and the Giant Quest,” a 2014 book about a group of animal pals — a fox, bear, skunk, marten, rabbit and chipmunk — who take to a wooden boat to explore a mysterious swamp. As well, there’s an illustration from a 1988 book by the late Amherst children’s writer Julius Lester, illustrated by New York artist Jerry Pinkney, that revisits the “Uncle Remus” stories of the 19th century.

“We wanted to get as wide a range of work as possible,” said Keiter. “But we also have to recognize that there are some limitations in what we can show.”

She notes that some older children’s artwork is considered racist by today’s standards and thus had to be excluded from the show. In addition, the appropriateness of using animals to depict human behavior and activities — and to do that to entertain readers — has come into question for some due to human destruction of animal habitats and populations, Keiter said.

An explanatory note to that effect is part of the exhibit, as is another that says the show’s content also largely reflects the history of a “persistently white and male-dominated publishing industry.” The Carle is working to expand its collection to include more work by artists of other cultures and color, exhibit notes say.

“Let’s Talk! Animals From the Collection” is on view through Jan. 24, 2021.

The Carle’snamesake artist

Keitner says the Carle continues to feel its way through the pandemic. Visitation has been limited to about 40 percent capacity, she noted, by requiring people to reserve admission tickets in advance, and hand sanitizer stations and a new air filtration system have been added as additional safety measures. Face masks are mandatory for all visitors and staff.

“We’re not where we were” before the pandemic,” she said. “Some people obviously still have concerns about being in enclosed places. But we’re happy to have people back just the same.”

One potential draw for visitors, Keiter hopes, is a new exhibit of work by Eric Carle, who’s now 91. “Eric Carle: Just For Laughs” features artwork from throughout the celebrated artist’s career that takes a particular delight in the absurd and off-beat.

For instance, there are several of his trademark collage creations — painted tissue paper and other materials — from his 1984 book “The Mixed-Up Chameleon,” in which the chameleon in question is so eager to change shape that it adopts a number of parts from other animals. With a turtle shell on its back, an elephant’s head and trunk, the webbed feet of a duck and other disparate parts, the critter turns itself into a mess.

Exhibit notes say Carle credits countless schoolchildren as co-authors of the book because many of them delighted in creating these kinds of hybrid animals when he led art workshops in classrooms over the years.

Another display likely to get a laugh from kids is from the 1993 book “Today is Monday,” in which three illustrations depict animals taking an unusual approach to eating. A porcupine has green beans stuck to its quills, a snake is ensnared in multiple strands of spaghetti, and a cat sits ready to dine at a table, a bib tied across its front and a knife and fork positioned in its front paws.

The exhibit also includes artwork from a now out-of-print 1971 book, “The Scarecrow Clock,” as well as some blown-up prints of humorous thank-you letters Carle sent to people who had written him, including someone who gifted him an automatic card shuffler. In that letter, Carle’s hand-drawn picture shows a white-bearded man haloed in a flurry of playing cards, with a note saying “This is what shuffling used to look like at our house.”

“Eric Carle: Just For Laughs,” which was also postponed in spring, will be on view through February 28, 2021. A smaller Eric Carle exhibit, “An Homage to Paul Klee,” is on view through Nov. 29. In addition, two virtual exhibits “Art in Place” and “Now & Then,” can also been seen at the museum’s website, carlemuseum.org.

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