Helping kids brush up on art

SUN JOURNAL

Education: A new picture book museum in Massachusetts seeks to encourage children to read and ease their fears about visiting such places.

January 12, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

AMHERST, Mass. - Two-year-old twins Moira and Mia McDonald, in matching bob haircuts and red turtlenecks, zip across the granite floor among the framed pictures of old friends, stopping at familiar faces and exclaiming, "Look what I found!"

The very hungry caterpillar and the grouchy ladybug watch as the tots speed past. But it's the very greedy python that gets the girls wriggling, giggling and "ssssssssing" in front of his green curled body fashioned from brightly colored tissue paper.

The girls' old friends play starring roles in the works of children's book illustrator Eric Carle - and in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which opened in November in its home beside Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.

Carle, a former graphic designer and advertising agency art director, has used his bright tissue-paper collage style to illustrate more than 70 children's books in his nearly four-decade career, including such classics as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and The Very Grouchy Ladybug. His latest book, Slowly, Slowly, Slowly, Said the Sloth, was published in August.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his best-known work, has sold more than 17 million copies and been translated into at least 30 languages, said Carle's representatives.

While the theme of his museum is children's book illustration, the target audience spans the ages, says H. Nichols B. Clark, director of the museum.

Clark has seen the youngest children toddle up to characters and begin applauding. One 5-year-old looked around the gallery and exclaimed, "All my best friends are here!"

He has also seen older adults come in and linger over the pages of stories they've shared with children and grandchildren. "It's ours to screw up," Clark says with a smile. "We've already got the audience in our back pocket."

Carle, who lives about 20 minutes away in Northampton, has visited the 40,000-square-foot museum at least once a week since it opened.

"I like to wander through the spaces and check on things and to see people's reactions to what we've created here," he says. "I also like to read to children in the reading library and to answer their questions about my work."

The museum began to take shape seven years ago in the imaginations of Carle and his wife, Barbara, who had visited picture book museums in Japan and Germany. They saw their museum as a small space at first, but when the project's architect, Earl Pope, asked them how big the space should be, their dream began to grow.

"We arrived at the notion that it should be big enough to hold three busloads of children, plus some adults," Carle says. "And then we thought, well, it would be nice to have an auditorium; it would be nice to have a studio; it would be nice to have a library. ... So that's how it grew. And now ... well ... it all makes perfect sense."

Three galleries

The expansive space, of white walls, glass and granite, frames the Carles' dream. Three galleries gather works by Carle and other guest illustrators. In the entry hall, floor-to-ceiling windows stretch along one side of the building, overlooking a 7.5-acre apple orchard. Several 8-foot-by-16-foot colorfully patterned panels, also created by Carle, stretch along the walls opposite.

On this wintry day, two young girls skip past, pointing and naming them, "Strawberries! Beans!" before disappearing into the library to collapse on a sofa amid giggles.

The girls, Pearl Silverman, 4, and her sidekick, Adele Sakey, 3, emerge a few minutes later with their mothers, intent on a "treasure hunt."

At the front desk they meet Rosemary Agoglia, curator for education, who gives them a clipboard listing items to look for in the galleries. After Pearl earnestly discusses "fast feet for walking" vs. "running feet" with Agoglia, the girls set off at a pace somewhere in between.

The artwork, framed by light wood and white matting, is hung low so it can meet the gaze of young viewers such as Adele, who squealed, "I see Little Bear," as she scampered off to a visiting show by Maurice Sendak. Around a corner, she spots Babar and Franklin the Turtle.

"They're coming to us with an anticipation of seeing old friends," Clark says, adding that for families coming to visit, picture book art "levels the playing field. The young child has as much to say" as the adults.

Instilling confidence in viewing art by encouraging visitors to talk about what they see and how illustrations make them feel - and begin to understand that there are no right and wrong answers - is one of the museum's missions, he says. "There's a large population out there that is intimidated by museums."

Clark, a veteran museum administrator, says he enjoys watching families go into the art studio, where a full-time artist is waiting to help them make illustrations. "The parents are just as engaged," he says. "Your inhibitions kind of melt away."

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